Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Young professionals talk about "working for the man"

Thursday's luncheon dine around had a diverse and cozy group that luckily included some locals. Both our planned restaurant and our backup were out of business, the resident Portlandians led us to good eats. While we all came from diverse backgrounds, we had a lively discussion about challenges (and rewards) of being public historians working in the government sector. The lunch format worked so well for a business style discussion, and having it in the midst of the day dedicated to events and panels about graduate students and young professionals certainly helped set the tone.

Also, as young professionals it was helpful to begin to do some networking outside of academia but with public history trained/minded fellow professionals. I found that those discussions shaped the way that I approached sessions later in the conference where the subject or the participants were government product related.

Personally, I hope that we see more luncheon dine arounds at future conferences and that this forum for government sector public historians continues to find a place in the schedule of events.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Stepping out into Portland

Portland, Oregon is a beautiful city. It’s not too enormous or too small in its harmonious setting between the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, which are flanked (on a clear day) by the snowy peak of Mount Saint Helens reaching into a beautiful blue sky.

That’s what Saturday was like at the National Council on Public History Conference, revealing to me just what a walkable, bike-friendly city looks like. I spent one of my breaks eating at Voodoo Doughnut and at various food carts, all while meandering through street fairs and Powell’s Bookstore (their architecture and history sections are like time warps – prepare to lose four hours in a flash). All in all, a good ending to a fantastic four days.

That being said, let’s take stock on the last two days of the conference. Friday morning I moderated a panel with David Brown (the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s executive vice president), Ian Fawcett (deputy executive director of the Land Conservancy of British Columbia), and Liz Dunn (consulting director of the Preservation Green Lab). The session explored the work of the International National Trusts Organization (INTO) and how climate change is being thought about by their member organizations across the globe. In putting together this panel, I wanted to spread the great information from the INTO conference in Dublin this past year. You can read one attendee’s reaction here.

Following this, I boarded a bus out to Dundee Hills to visit the Sokol Blosser Winery, an organic sustainable winery that is home to the first LEED certified silver wine cellar. The owners of Sokol Blosser understand the need for sustainable farming and viticulture and have adopted it wholeheartedly, managing to convince the vineyards surrounding them to work with them to accomplish their goals. More on that in a bit.

So, what does all this have to do with preservation?

On the one hand, the story of the vineyard speaks to what historians can accomplish (the founders of the vineyard were both history majors in the 1970’s), but it also attempts to answer a question we struggled with earlier in the week – how do we reach the public and show them that sustainability is a part of our future, and more specifically that historic preservation and sustainability go hand in hand within that future?

When I first started at the National Trust almost four years ago, I knew almost nothing about how the environmental movement was linked with old buildings (aside, of course, from the role of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in the creation of the National Park System). It took time reading and listening for me to understand why this is an integral part of what we do.

As a public historian/preservationist, it is important to recognize all the ways that history and the past connect with the public, even when this connection reflects highly volatile and controversial current issues like global warming and sustainability. We always throw around the fact that history is relevant in the here and now – that it is an important part of daily life and is ingrained in community character. The acknowledgement of this link between the public at the grassroots level and our role as historians/preservationists/public historians at the professional level needs to happen in sync with the work we do on policy and other legislation.

Let’s take a step back to the vineyard. The owners of Sokol Blosser knew they wanted to have a vineyard that was organic and sustainable, but they knew they couldn’t do it by themselves. So they reached out to their neighbors, trained their employees, and created a mindset within their own community about the importance of being green. Similarly, we recognize that the work we do on this issue is about more than just saving historic places; it is about preserving ecosystems and landscapes that are a part of historic view sheds, and consequently a way of life. We work within our organizations to communicate this belief and to spread the word to our memberships. We are ambassadors that are helping to usher forth an engaged, knowledgeable, and determined public.

Yes, this is a slow process, but it will continue to be advanced by gathering at conferences like the 2010 National Council on Public History/Environmental Historian Conference, where we all stepped out of our disciplinary silo’s and talked to one another.

Priya Chhaya

National Trust for Historic Preservation


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Adios Portland

A big shout out to all the people who worked so hard to make this another superb conference!

-- Post From My iPhone

NCPH Presidential Address: Public History at Middle Age?

Outgoing NCPH President Marianne Babal used her presidential address to talk about the state of the field and the challenges she envisions for the next few years. Noting that public historians inhabit "those in-between spaces where points of contact are constantly changing," she spoke about generational change, technological innovation, and economic challenge, and suggested that NCPH is "overdue for a season of introspection" in which we plan how to negotiate our next few years.

One thing that caught my attention in Babal's speech was her characterization of public history as a field that is beginning to be "middle-aged." NCPH turns 30 this year; our journal has been in operation since 1978; if we are middle-aged, we're surely on the young side of "middle"! In some ways, the field always feels young and fresh to me, perhaps because we're so perpetually involved in the task of self-definition and reinvention (and perhaps also because NCPH has been so successful at attracting and engaging graduate students and other new and/or young members). NCPH itself has a great deal of dynamism at the moment, reflecting the cohort currently involved in running the organization (including, as Babal and others pointed out, our excellent staff), but the growth of public history programs and of public history as a discourse that circulates more and more internationally also contributes to this sense of youthful energy.

In other ways, it sometimes seems to me that public historians increasingly discover our deep roots in many kinds of historical practices and concerns, which lends that air of maturity that Babal was perhaps seeing as middle age. As I move farther into my own middle years and find myself still feeling poised between self-definition and a growing sense of connectedness to others in the past who have been occupied with trying to foster deeper historical consciousness in our fast-paced, surface-oriented modern world, it occurs to me that this is a positive definition of middle age as well as an explanation of why I feel so at home in this field!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Nineteenth century "greens"

Sometimes at public history conferences we get so caught up in the “how” (the doing of history in public) that there’s a tendency to lose sight of the “what” (history itself!). I’ve enjoyed attending some of the ASEH sessions in Portland and remembering how illuminating it can be just to inquire into some aspect of the past that resonates in an intriguing way. The very well-attended panel “Interpreting Countermodern Landscapes: Toward Broader Public Spaces” did this by presenting four views of 19th century movements and projects that reveal the deep lineage of ecological and social critiques of modernity, as reflected in specific landscapes and places.

Aaron Sachs of Cornell University spoke about the “natural cemetery” movement in antebellum America as a complex response to the “go-aheadism” of the period, which specifically articulated a different version of space and society from the dominant urban grid pattern of the era. Daegan Miller, a PhD candidate also from Cornell, put a new twist on the iconic status of Henry Thoreau by examining Thoreau’s surveying and cartographic work, reading Thoreau’s 1839 map of the Concord River as an expression of multi-dimensional, multivocal place. Michael Smith from Ithaca College talked about his current research into the summer camp movement, presenting the camp as “an ideal space for clarifying values, testing them, and deciding which ones were worth carrying back to the modern world.” And Kathryn Ziewicz, a PhD candidate from Florida State University, compared Ebenezer Howard’s late 19th century “Garden Cities” in England with today’s New Urbanism, seeing similarities in the way that each has compromised with the modern forces that these somewhat utopian spatial forms were created to fix.

Although only Ziewicz made this explicit, all of the papers seemed on some level to be in dialogue with contemporary discourses about sustainability and eco-centric planning. On the one hand, this is a little depressing (why don’t these critiques and proposals seem to stick?). On the other, there’s something heartening about being reminded that today’s eco-visionaries have such a long lineage. And it was good to feel the vigor of these presentations and the obvious interest in the room. (Come of to think of it, this does actually sound a lot like public history!)

Slideshow of the Fort Vancouver/Cathlapotle Plank House Tour

Yesterday some of us went on a tour of Fort Vancouver and Cathlapotle Plank House. I posted a few of my lousy cell phone pics yesterday, here are the rest, click on the slides show for the stunning full-screen experience, or see them on a map:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Twitter tag

Check out the #ncph2010 Twitter tag for some quick takes on the conference in progress!