Archive for Historic Preservation

Back in the Classroom


Last month, I took a little road trip down to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to take part in the Maymester program at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). MTSU has one of the few PhD programs in public history in the US, and Maymester provides a condensed semester (in May) that allows the program to access public history practitioners as teachers, because the abbreviated schedule fits better to real time work commitments elsewhere.

Picture of Susan Ferentinos with students

Students and I during my visit to the MTSU freedom struggles class.

MTSU Professor Louis Kyriakoudes, director of the Albert Gore Research Center, invited me to be a guest lecturer in his graduate Maymester class on “Interpreting, Archiving, and Preserving Freedom Struggles.” I commend Dr. Kyriakoudes, first, for recognizing that LGBTQ political activism falls into a larger historical trajectory of movements in support of expanded civil rights and, second, for organizing such a creative course.

The first few days began with guest lecturer Curtis Austin, author of Up Against a Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, talking to the class about African American freedom struggles. The rest of the first week went to my visit, as I discussed the history of LGBTQ activism with students. The second week involved a field visit to various museums and archives in Atlanta, followed by a week-long digital history project the students were responsible for.

During my visit to the class, I gave the students a quick overview of the history of LGBTQ activism, and argued that scholarly writing on LGBTQ history has followed patterns that are related to various trends in the movement. I also used the recent listing of the House of the Furies on the National Register of Historic Places as a case study. The Furies Collective, which operated in Washington, DC, in the early 1970s, created much of the theory behind lesbian separatism. The historic designation of a property associated with the group marks a new phase in the government’s thinking about historical significance, and I wanted both to make the students aware of this and also to discuss with them the implications of a property associated with such radical ideas entering into a preservation program ran by the federal government.

The MTSU students did not disappoint. I am still coming to terms with how quickly LGBTQ circumstances are changing, and the subsequent ripple effects into the ways we preserve and commemorate the struggles that got us to this historical moment. So, my visit with the MTSU students was much more an exploration than a lecture. I’m happy to say that these future public history practitioners gave me a lot to think about and renewed me with their unique perspectives on the tides of political activism and the importance of the work we do to understand, preserve, and interpret these memories.

Making LGBTQ History American History: A Public Conversation on Stonewall National Monument and Beyond


Flyer advertising the event

All the details about this talk.

In 2016, President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall National Monument in New York City to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, which sparked the modern LGBTQ rights movement. This month, I will be moderating a public conversation with Joshua Laird and Beth Savage, who in different ways have both contributed to the preservation and recognition of this site as an important part of the history of the United States.

As a National Park Service employee working on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s, Beth Savage was involved in the nomination of the Stonewall Inn to the National Register, which made it the first property related to LGBTQ history to receive this federal recognition. Now, nearly twenty years later, the site has become a part of the National Park Service, and Joshua Laird, as Commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor, oversees the stewardship of this historic site. During our public discussion, I will be interviewing the speakers about their experiences with this landmark historic site as well as the changes they’ve observed in the public’s understanding of what constitutes the national past. We will then welcome audience members to ask their own questions and participate in the conversation.

The event will be held at 6:00 p.m. on Friday, April 21, 2017 at the Westin Hotel in Indianapolis. The talk is free and open to the public, and will also serve as the plenary event of the National Council on Public History Annual Meeting. If you are unable to make it in person, you can follow along on Twitter at #ncph2017 #plenary.

For more on the designation of Stonewall as a national monument, watch the video below.

 

Government Report on LGBTQ History


lgbtqcover_sm_3In October, the National Park Service released what may be the first federal report on the history of LGBTQ communities. LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer America was funded by the Gill Foundation and completed under the auspices of the National Park Foundation. Its purpose is to provide cultural resource managers and historic preservation professionals a framework for understanding this history and guidelines for identifying and preserving historic properties related to these experiences.

I am honored to be a co-author of this groundbreaking work, contributing the chapter on “Interpreting LGBTQ Historic Sites.

The LGBTQ Theme Study is part of a larger park service initiative to “tell all Americans’ stories,” which has involved a variety of efforts to preserve and interpret sites related to underrepresented communities within the U.S. A summary of the agency’s efforts in regard to LGBTQ history is available here.

In addition to the theme study, the park service has also recognized multiple properties related to LGBTQ history, designating them as National Historic Landmarks or adding them to the National Register of Historic Places. The agency is also partnering with HistoryPin to gather crowdsourced information on additional LGBTQ historic sites.

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The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U. S. Government.

The Value of Conferences


Early spring is conference season in my field, and even though it can make for an intense few weeks, I usually attend two or three conferences during the months of March, April, and May. I’m a big believer in the value of conferences. I consistently return from these gatherings inspired by new ideas and having developed new skills. In addition, I find these events rewarding on an interpersonal level; they allow me an opportunity to catch up with professional colleagues and meet new people working in content areas similar to mine. I’ve developed a wide network over decades of conference-going, and these folks provide crucial input for me as I brainstorm ideas for new projects, seek informational resources on difficult questions, or weigh in on the challenging public history issues of the moment.

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A sign from historic Printer’s Alley in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

My first conference of 2015 took place in mid-April when I attended the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (twitter hashtag: #NCPH2015) in Nashville, Tennessee. Happily, a number of NCPH sessions intersected with my own current projects, and I was particularly energized by sessions exploring ways to increase the representation of women at historic sites and advocating for public historians to embrace the role of “History Communicators” who engage the public with a historical perspective on contemporary issues.

The week after NCPH, I was again on the conference trail, this time heading to Kokomo, Indiana, for the Indiana Preserving Historic Places Conference (Twitter hashtag: #INPHP2015). I am an semi-regular attendee of this gathering of Indiana historic preservation professionals, usually making it to the conference every two or three years. Much of this year’s conference revolved around the theme of preserving industrial heritage, and Kokomo–with its history as a site of glass manufacturing and its ongoing role in automobile production–provided an excellent backdrop to the exploration of these issues.

Kokomo Opalescent Glass Factory, Kokomo, Indiana. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

Kokomo Opalescent Glass Factory, Kokomo, Indiana. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

Industrial sites present unique challenges to preservationists. Their physical scale is far greater than many other historic sites and can make re-use a challenge. The presence of heavy machinery and other potentially dangerous features increases liability issues, and often the brownfields left behind require particular government-mandated procedures during preservation efforts. Nevertheless, one cannot adequately understand the history of the United States without considering the role of manufacture in the country’s economic development. In my own experience, I have had some of my most powerful experiences as a historian while touring such monuments to this heritage as Lowell National Historic Site in Massachusetts and the Sloss Iron Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham, Alabama.

The Kokomo trip brought an end to my spring-time traveling for conferences, but the exposure to new ideas and the networking continues. A virtual conference on PhD’s working outside of the academy, Beyond the Professoriate 2015 (Twitter hashtag: #BeyondProf), took place online May 2 and 9. Such discussions, which often fall under the umbrella term “Alt-Ac” (Twitter hashtag: #altac), tend to focus on the initial transition of graduate students from their academic training into the wider world. Despite being well along in my own career, I attended this conference as a means of learning about other people’s experiences. For the 2014-2015 academic year, I have been working with graduate students at Indiana University, helping them prepare for a broad job search that is not confined to academic positions. The Beyond the Professoriate conference provided a nice block of time to gather my thoughts about the alt-ac process, while taking part in a larger conversation about the topic.

All told, I covered a broad range of professional interests during my spring 2015 conference season. I predict I’ll be implementing ideas spurred by these travels for months to come.

 

Publications and Press: Summer 2014 Redux


It has been an intense and rewarding summer 2014, and I have been so busy finishing my book, beginning new projects, and talking about history far and wide that I am overdue at posting an update on where you might learn more about my work. So with this post, let me quickly review this summer’s publications and press mentions.

In June, the National Park Service launched an LGBT History Initiative, and as a companion, the Summer 2014 issue of National Parks, a publication of the National Parks Conservation Association, published an article about LGBT history in the programs of the National Park Service. In the course of writing the article, author Rona Marech, and I had a long and inspiring conversation on the topic, and some of my thoughts are quoted in her article, “Untold Stories.”

In July, I made my guest-blogging debut by contributing an article to Public History Commons. This online community, sponsored by the National Council on Public History (NCPH), is a remarkable clearing-house of the latest thinking on the presentation and interpretation of the past to a wide audience. My particular contribution was in response to a call made by Robert Weyeneth, recent NCPH President, for public historians to “lift the veil” on our work and share with museum visitors the actual process by which professional historians learn about the past. My article, “Lifting Our Skirts: Sharing the Sexual Past with Visitors,” argues that LGBT history is a subject that is particularly well-suited to this enterprise.

Screen shot of "Lifting our Skirts" article

In August, as I mentioned in my last blog post, I gave a talk on “Historic Preservation as a Green Alternative,” and, happily, this topic sparked some local interest. WFHB, Bloomington, Indiana’s community radio station, recorded my talk and later aired it on their regional news show, “Standing Room Only.” It’s now available as a podcast. In addition, my local newspaper The Bloomington Herald Times followed up with me and ended up publishing an article on the subject in their weekly environmental column. “Environmental Sustainability Also Applies to Buildings,” by Laura Slavin, offers a local perspective on some of the larger issues I touched on in my talk.

I am so happy that the work I’m doing is being recognized in the press; it is rewarding to share the larger relevance of history with a wide audience, and media outlets help with that effort by spreading the good word. You can keep current on my latest publications and press mentions any time by consulting the “Media” page of this web site.

Historic Preservation as a Green Alternative


Historic light fixtures using energy efficient bulbs

Public Domain photo from the US General Services Administration

History is everywhere. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy this work so much. I have given talks on the Golden Age of Hollywood at a movie-lover’s birthday party. I have sat in a room of wildlife biologists and argued for the need to protect cultural resources, as well as natural ones, from the negative effects of climate change. I have chatted over cocktails with business leaders about the role of local history in maintaining the economic health of small towns. These conversations, which invariably stray outside my comfort zone and bring me into contact with fresh perspectives, offer a chance for me to advocate for history’s relevance and to grow as a professional.

On Wednesday, August 27 (2014), I’ll once again be courting inspiration from different disciplines when I give a talk to Green Drinks Bloomington. Green Drinks is an informal monthly gathering of people from a variety of occupations who share an interest in creating a greener world. In Bloomington, the crowd is usually a boisterous mix of scientists, activists, organic farmers, and politicians. The discussions are always interesting and help bring me up to speed on environmental issues large and small–from national lobbying efforts to innovative programs playing out in my own small corner of south-central Indiana.

Like the rest of the Green Drinkers, I care about crafting a greener future, but unlike many of them, my expertise is culture, and when dreaming of the future, I turn to the past for guidance. I’m curious if others will agree with me that previous generations left us lessons in sustainability that are relevant today. So on August 27, I’ll be speaking to the Green Drinks crowd about “Historic Preservation as a Green Alternative.” We in the historic preservation field are familiar with the idea  that “the greenest building is the one already built.” Much has been written on the energy efficiency of restoring historic buildings rather than building new. I hope to share some of that thinking with an audience who may not have heard this argument before. I also hope to spark a conversation about the benefit historical-mindedness can bring to the environmental movement. I’m inclined to say, people who develop empathy and respect for their ancestors are more likely to make choices that take future generations into consideration. The past and the future work in tandem.

If you happen to be in Bloomington, Indiana, on Wednesday and would like to join in the dialogue, please join me at Green Drinks. Details about time and place can be found here.

Historic Preservation: The Original Green

Image from the blog of the Wichita Orpheum, http://www.wichitaorpheum.com/uncategorized/the-economics-of-historic-preservation/

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