Public History Blog

During this semester, the class often discussed the role of the museum and the role of public historians within the community at large. Like most things in the modern era, the field of public history continues to go through immense and rapid changes. Within the past two decades alone, public historians have had to expand their occupations to account for new circumstances. From revolutions of the digital age, to the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes in social consciousness, public historians have had to adapt–and often deviate– from traditional methods of practice.

Moving into the future, this ability to change will become critical to preserving public history. While incidents such as COVID-19 may be a temporary hindrance for public historians, technological changes and social consciousness create more prominent obstacles for historians.

Since the twenty-first century alone, technology has entered a period of rapid advancement. Media, graphics, audio, hardware, and technological capability are just a few of the largest changes. Though these changes have changed the way that individuals consume media, it also has drastically changed how they consume media. Physiologically and psychologically, the digital age has changed how the human brain processes and engages with information. In the modern area, individuals experience immense pressure to multi-task which can lead to the impression that attention spans are shorter. Though that is not the case, public historians will need to find ways to account for changes in consumer engagement. In the future, historians will also have to find ways to create a balance between digital history and more traditional methods.

The shifts in social consciousness is something that will be more difficult, but none the less necessary, for public historians to adapt and account for. Increasingly, gaps in existing narratives are becoming apparent. From the exclusion of certain voices and individuals, selective narratives, collective memories, and changes in moral opinion, public ideas are changing. One of the responsibilities of the public historian will be interpreting these pieces to created updated and more inclusive narratives. Outside of determining whose voices are selected within a narrative, their efforts will also have to take a more proactive role. Their efforts will also concern selected artifacts, highlighted displays, special programs, literature, and even becoming more outspoken on certain political matters. Two such examples are the controversy within the collections housed at the British Museum as well as the monument debates in the United States. As tensions increase, public historians will not be able to afford to remain passive and silent on certain issues as many have been in the past.

A third change that organizations will need to account for are the changes to economical conditions. Within public history, budgets have generally been small. Outside of larger institutions and collectives, organizations are often reliant on patrons, public support, grants, and gift shop sales to support their collections and staff. These already tight budgets have been increased by both political shifts as well as COVID-19. Though the economic effects of the virus have been felt across practically every aspect of society, many establishments have had to permanently close. Because of these economic hits, funding will be even tighter. Patrons, donors, and grant givers will also experience their own economic struggles. These struggles will translate directly to the benefactors in the public history sphere. Self supporting organizations, or those funded by consumer interactions, are receiving less–to no–income from visitors which is placing strains on reserve funds and future budgets. These economic effects will be felt for years to come.

The world is a complex place and it is impossible for organizations to make contingency plans for every future circumstance. Overall, the future of public history will rely on organizations, and individuals, abilities and willingness to adapt to a changing world. New technologies create not only new potential means of outreach, but new concerns for engagement. New social climates will require extended representation in preexisting narratives as well as engaging with new consciousness. Public history organizations are dependent on economic foundations for normal occupational practices but with strained budgets looming on the horizon, establishments will need to be able to prepare and account for more limited resources.

Auburn University: A Perspective on History

Before arriving at Auburn, I knew little about its history. I was aware of individuals such as Hank Hartsfield, Jan Davis, Ken Mattingly, Kathryn Thorton, and James Voss but I knew little else about both the University and the town itself. Most of my experience with Auburn’s history has come through not only the astronauts above, but also through individuals such as Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Launius. These are two individuals I was familiar with before arriving on campus. Living in the middle of SEC territory myself, I was also familiar with Auburn’s football and baseball programs. As a former competitive gymnast, I was also aware of Auburn’s program’s success. Admittingly, in my several month stay in Auburn, I have rarely left my house. Because of this, I have not had the time to explore the town, or campus, which still leaves me unfamiliar with much of its history. What I do know about Auburn, I have learned through the classroom.

Through classes, I have became aware of Auburn’s dedication to the Lost Cause and preserving its role in the Civil War as well as Auburn’s past preservation of white supremacy. Through the 1960s, the University was hesitant to enroll African American students and when they did, the student body was highly segregated. Until recently, Auburn still, and arguably still does, have a reputation for catering to primarily wealthy and white individuals. In recent years, Auburn has been attempting to rededicate itself and diversify. Along with this, the University is being more open about its past and attempting, though they may just be surface level gestures, to make amends. While these gestures may be the first steps in a long marathon, it does bring some hope for the future.

Object Biography

Silicone Ring c. 2017

Pictured is a simple black ring made of silicone. The surface is smooth and matte black and the interior of the band is engraved with the phrase, “Wait For It ;” The ring was hand molded and once the silicone cured, it was placed in a machine that engraved the phrasing. The ring was made in the state of Indiana in 2017 before being shipped to its owner Jerryn Puckett. It is an approximate United States size 7 but it shows signs of stretching from years of constant use. Other than the minor stretching, the ring shows little to no other significant evidence of wear.  It is mostly worn on the middle finger of her right hand

Throughout most of history, jewelry was used to portray not only status, but many pieces contained symbolic meaning. The company that manufactured the ring has been in business since 2010 which indicates that the ring itself is not a rare object. The engraving on the band differentiates Ms. Puckett’s ring from the rest of the ones that were manufactured.  For Ms. Puckett, the ring itself was a symbol of identity and dedication to herself and her goals. The pictured ring is not the only one she wore. For several years before purchasing the ring, she wore one in a similar style until it broke. When shopping for a replacement, she wanted a piece that resembled the original as to keep the original meaning. In her efforts, she found the small company in Indiana that offered custom engraving. The engraved phrase was suggested to her by a close friend. Inspired by the musical, Hamilton, the phrase “Wait For It ;” was suggested not only as a reminder of her goals and ambitions, but also that sometimes patience is critical.

Overall, the ring is valued at less than $10, but carries sentimental meaning. Since it arrived, it only has been removed on less than a handful of occasions and is often the only piece of jewelry she wears. Though the ring was purchased to replace another, it holds more symbolic meaning than the original. When it was purchased, Ms. Puckett was struggling with feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty for the future both vocationally and academically. Once she resolved some of these issues, the ring became a reminder of the struggles she faced and their resolution.

A COVID Experience

For the interview, I chose a friend from home. Our region was fortunate not to be hit heavy by the virus and generally, life continued rather unaffected. The friend I chose to interview is an immuno-compromised college student, whose grandparents live with her, and both of her parents work in the medical field. I thought these factors would change her perspective from the general population.

Overall, her largest concern with the pandemic was how it would affect her compromised immune system. She rarely leaves the house and when she does, she makes sure to have a mask and plenty of hand sanitizer. Because of her immunity, she has had to take exclusively online classes this semester which has changed her projected graduation date. She also talked about her reliance on technology during the pandemic. Like many college students, she was in the middle of Spring Break when she learned that she would not be continuing her classes on campus. She commutes to her university, but experienced several factors at home that made completing her work difficult. These factors were mentioned several times to cause immense stress. Though she is experiencing stress, her concerns still fell to those around her. She frequently brought up the mental health of another friend as well as her grandparents’ and parents’ safety. In the conclusion of our conversation, I asked what outside factors frustrated her about the pandemic. In response, she complained about the community’s response, those who deny the pandemic is real, treat it as a political topic, and refuse to wear a mask as well as the mixed reports from media platforms.

Her reflections provide a different perspective. Though we live close to one another, we are still in different areas. Whereas my city has only have 5 cases since March, her county has counted around 2,000 cases. Why not extreme, this is comparatively a significant number. She said the world is insane right now and we only have each other to rely on. “COVID-19 has definitely affected people in many ways, some have it worse than others; therefore, be kind to any people you do interact with. For the love of all things holy, cooperate and follow the guidelines. Don’t be a “Karen”. All you’re going to hurt is your pride by wearing a cloth over your face. Think how your ignorance can change someone’s life negatively.”

Ask a Public Historian: Dr. Jennifer Ross-Nazzal

Dr. Jennifer Ross-Nazzal: Historian Johnson Space Center: Houston, Texas

  1. What drew you to history and why did you choose to enter it as a professional field? 

Originally, I was a Political Science major.  At the start of my senior year in college, I enrolled in the first half of the American women’s history survey and really enjoyed it.  Afterwards I declared a double major in Political Science and History.  At the end of my senior year, I decided to pursue a master’s degree to study women’s history. 

After competing my master’s degree I began working as hall director at a community college and taught a couple of classes here and there.  About nine months later, I began applying for several open positions at nearby community colleges.  One college encouraged me to reapply the next year.  I decided a doctorate would help me stand out, so I decided to apply to doctoral programs. 

2. Did you set out with the intent working in the public history?

Not initially but I did see it as a backup and applied to several programs that offered public history courses.  At the time, only a handful of schools offered PhDs in public history, and Washington State University was one. 

3. Were there any big opportunities or experiences that shaped your interests or your career?

There were many.  A couple standout at this moment.  I wrote my master’s thesis on the impact and influence of New Mexico clubwomen on their local communities.  To fill a gap in limited resources I conducted ten oral history interviews with women from the different clubs across the state and used sections throughout my manuscript.  This sparked my interest in oral history. 

As a PhD student, I participated in two internships including one with the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project.  Interning with the project opened the door to a full-time position in 2002.  On my first day in that position, I traveled to San Diego and sat in on an interview with Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space.  What a memorable day!   

4. How did graduate school prepare you for the professional field? What sorts of skills have proved useful and were there any areas of your training that were lacking?

Graduate school gave me solid training in research and research methods like oral history.  Working on my master’s thesis I learned how important interpersonal relationship skills were to gathering information locked away in people’s homes and clubhouses.  Conducting oral history interviews as a grad student prepared me for my current position.  Researching the Montana National Guard helped me think outside of the box when it came to looking for materials unavailable in the organizational records. 

Graduate school—even our public history program—focused solely on academics.  Rarely did I collaborate with others on projects, yet I work as a part of a team every day.  Nor did I receive the management skills one needs in public history.  Historians need to be trained in project management, budget, and personnel matters.    And, public historians need to be prepared to work on tasks that in no way relate to research or writing.  These can be arranging meetings, travel, or coming up with a budget for a project.  Public historians also need training in how to handle difficult situations and people. 

5. Each day is different, but what are some of the tasks you handle daily?

It is difficult to characterize my days as they vary so much, but I do handle reference requests on a daily basis.  Lately, because I am teleworking, I have had regular online weekly meetings with my management.  On typical days before this pandemic, I might be arranging travel, preparing to conduct an oral history interview, or editing an oral history transcript.  I might be at the archive doing some research or doing an interview with the media or a student.  Occasionally I give tours of the Center and am a guide.  Other days I might be gathering research for a talk or giving a talk.  Really, I never know what my day could bring.  For instance, I might also be completing required IT security, ergonomic, record management, or safety training.

6. What advice do you have for someone who may be close to getting out of graduate school or looking for their first job 

In the public history world you need to market all your skills—not just your ability to research and write. 

Years ago I attended a cultural resource management conference where the owner of a firm spoke to students.  She explained that she did not need someone who could only do one thing, in this case CRM.  She needed someone who could service her trucks and do CRM or CRM and the accounting.  Even in the federal world I have seen this.  The Department of Energy recently hired a historian but wanted the new hire to be their cultural resources manager, their archivist, and their historian. 

After finishing your master’s or doctorate don’t assume you’re finished with your education.  The world is changing, jobs are much less secure, and you should continue to look for ways to market yourself.  I have earned a certificate in historic preservation and am pursuing a master’s in Information Science to make sure I’m more flexible in my current position, but also marketable if I need to change jobs. 

Perceptions of the Past

For the survey, I chose a close friend of mine to interview. Currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology, I know that the subject has taken several history classes and is interested in history. This interest gives the interviewee a knowledge base that could contribute to the conversation without being too knowledgeable. Overall, their responses were not surprising. As they live in a small rural environment and the responses reflected the culture of the area they live. When asked about what was important, family history as well as first-hand experiences and oral history. This reflected when asked about the accuracy of historical media. In their responses, they showed fair levels of trust in first-hand experiences, museums, collegiate professors, and academic books, but doubted the other forms.

Overall, the survey was very straightforward and concise. There were areas that promoted further discussion, but some allowed more room for dead ends. This is a common occurrence in broad surveys and not surprising but, in this instance, it did not have much impact on the interview. Even if in another case the conversation did fall flat, I could probably still use the information as that area probably meant less to an individual; which is a data set within itself.

While the survey is good for developing a wide view of individuals’ perceptions of history, one of the things I like about the survey is how it can be easily tailored just by placing emphasis on certain categories or by asking more follow-up questions in a particular section. My biggest concern with the modern use of the survey is the change in time. Since the survey was first published, a lot has changed in the world in regard to the types of available media and how the media is culturally perceived. Specifically, social media and video games. I personally interact with several historical based social media pages and well as play a fair share of historical based video games. The modern “meme” culture also plays an impact on the accessibility, and exposure, to history that many see. If I were running this survey as a member of a historical site or a museum, I would also add follow-up questions about historical sites other than just the occasions that the subject has visited them. These questions could be from the use of technology, the perceptions of “modern” versus traditional experiences, to even something such as perceived relevance of these types of institutions.

Best historical memories

My exposure to history stretches as far back as I can remember. From my elementary school days in history class writing papers and giving presentations, I felt myself engaged with what came before and always tried to interact with it. One of the most fundamental experiences was during my trip to Houston for Junior Olympics when I forcibly drug my parents to Space Center Houston. It was one of the first times I really interacted first hand with the History of Science.

Monuments and Memory

In more recent years, the status of monuments has often been the hot topic of debate. Applied to statues and monuments across all eras, the discourse mainly focuses on events and figures that can be considered “controversial” due to behavior of belief. Though the movements mainly focus on specific figures, normal citizens often get caught in the cross hairs. In the town of Abingdon, located in Washington County, Virginia, one of these monuments has recently been the subject of town debate.

Abingdon itself is a historic town. Many of the buildings in Abingdon pre-date the Civil War and stand testament to the city’s role in the American Revolution. When entering the town, the historical identity is one that is extremely prominent. The monument being challenged in these debates stands in the courtyard to the Washington County Courthouse. Originally constructed in 1800, the Courthouse fell victim to a Union raid in 1864 and burned to the ground. Four years later, a new building was constructed and in 1907, the memorial to Confederate veterans was installed.

A-11. Confederate Monument, Abingdon, Va. - Digital Commonwealth

In the midst of recent debates, I have held the position that the memorial should be relocated. Near to the monument site is a historic cemetery with a section dedicated to Confederates. A short distance from that is a newly established park honoring the region’s veterans across all wars. While I still hold that opinion, I can understand some of the arguments as to why it should stay. Unlike some places in the region, Abingdon does not flaunt its Confederate history. If anything, it seems stronger tied to its role in the American Revolution. Many who want to keep the monument in place argue that removal is erasing history. Due to the historical nature of the town, removing it would not be “removing history”. The monument is not celebrated and often is passed by with little thought even though it is in the center of downtown. The best argument for keeping the monument is an argument I have yet to see made. The monument’s current position is highly symbolic. Even if not intended, it stands to honor those protected and defended the courthouse that was burned to the ground over a century and a half ago. While I fully understand the reasoning for wanting it to stay put, I can also say that its purpose of being a memorial is best suited in another location. A monument to honor those who risked their lives for the county deserves to stand either the veterans themselves or a place dedicated to honoring veterans.