Archive for Public History

Reflecting on the American Alliance of Museums Conference

Image of buttons stating an individual's pronoun preference

Pronoun buttons at AAM, via @exposyourmuseum

In early May, I attended the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), serving as one of eleven designated social media journalists for the event. The theme of this year’s gathering was “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion,” and the social media journalists were specifically tasked with exploring this theme.

Now, I am no stranger to conferences. I’ve been to scores of them over the course of my career, and in my experience, most annual conferences pay only cursory attention to the conference theme. But this conference was different. From the moment attendees arrived, AAM sent a message of inclusion with signs stating the conference’s open policy on bathroom use (i.e., attendees could choose to use whatever bathrooms best expressed their gender identity, no questions asked) and offering attendees the opportunity to make buttons indicating their preferences for personal pronouns.

I’d estimate that at least half of the sessions and all of the keynote events were focused on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion, exploring the topic from a range of angles including visitor experiences, community outreach, social justice work, hiring and training, leadership practices, and creating a welcoming work environment. My professional work revolves around diversity and inclusion, and yet I still found plenty of new ideas to ponder, debate, and execute.

Picture of the comment board that appeared at the conference

AAM comment board about the slave auction display, from an article at

About halfway through the conference, our explorations of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion veered beyond the established program when controversy erupted over a vendor display in the Expo hall. A company specializing in creating life-like figures for museum exhibitions had brought a depiction of a slave trader and enslaved person at auction to demonstrate the company’s product. Many attendees found it offensive that such an upsetting event would be displayed in a contemporary marketplace, devoid of historical context. A lively discussion erupted throughout the conference and on Twitter (see #aam2017slaveauction). AAM staff contacted the company about attendees’ concerns and soon added a comment panel related to the slave auction display, soliciting reactions from conference attendees.

On the last morning of the conference, concerned attendees convened at the company’s booth to discuss the issue with the company owner. Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, LLC, stepped in to facilitate a dialogue, which–from my perspective–created a far richer exchange.

I was happy to see a dialogue about the depiction. Hopefully, all sides gained some understanding and empathy through the process, although–judging from the Twitter feed–many were left dissatisfied with the discussion. For me personally, I felt that this issue provided a real-time example of the hard work ahead if we truly hope to build understanding and create a world that honors Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in deed as well as word.

For those who want to engage further with these issues:

  • Check out the Twitter hashtag #aam2017slaveauction to learn more about various reactions to the display
  • Read Seema Rao’s blog post, “Seven Action Steps Post- #AAM2017SlaveAuction #AAM2017
  • Look through the session recordings and handouts from the conference to find materials on various aspects of the conference theme
  • Read some of Dina Bailey’s writings, which appear in larger volumes that are also relevant to the topic:
    • “The Necessity of Community Involvement: Talking about Slavery in the 21st Century,” (co-written with Richard C. Cooper) in Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites, edited by Kristin L. Gallas and James DeWolf Perry (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)
    • “Finding Inspiration Inside: Engaging Empathy to Empower Anyone,” in Fostering Empathy through Museums, edited by Elif M. Gokcigdem (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)

American Alliance of Museums Announces Social Media Journalists for MuseumExpo 2017

On Sunday, May 7, 2017, museum professionals from across the country will convene in St. Louis for MuseumExpo, the largest annual gathering of people working across the spectrum of museums (art, history, science, children’s, etc.). The conference is organized by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and offers various tracks to help attendees hone in on the information they most need; evening events provide an array of networking opportunities; and the expo hall offers a mind-boggling array of goods and services for the museum community.

The organization is piloting a new program at this year’s meeting, and has selected eleven people from across the museum profession to serve as social media journalists. I’m excited to announce that I am part of this select group, whose purpose is to build a bridge between conversations taking place at the conference and those tuning in through social media. The AAM social media journalists will also be creating a series of blog posts reflecting on these conversations once the annual meeting has concluded.

Face of the 2017 social media journalists

The theme of the 2017 conference is “Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion in Museums,” and we social media journalists will each be exploring the ways the theme plays out in the conference presentations and events. We each bring a unique perspective to the task, having worked in a variety of museum positions and representing a range of genders, generations, ethnicities, sexual identities, and interests. For my part, I’ll be paying special attention to the theme’s implications for historical organizations and for LGBTQ and women-focused interpretation and inclusion. I will mostly be reporting via Twitter, with some additional comments via my professional Facebook page and posts on my website blog.

The event runs May 7-10, 2017. You can follow along on social media at #AAM2017 and follow the AAM social media journalists specifically at #AAMSMJ. If you’d like to follow me directly on Twitter, you can do so at @HistorySue (tweeting as myself) and @NCWHS (tweeting items relevant to interpreting women’s history, under the auspices of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites).

Find out more about the other AAM social media journalists here. And see you in St. Louis!

Upcoming Webinar with the American Association for State and Local History

Rainbow Flag painted on old wood plank background


On Thursday, May 4, 2017, at 3:00 pm eastern time, I will be partnering with the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) to offer a ninety-minute webinar on “Interpreting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History at Museums and Historic Sites.” This workshop will be based on my book by the same name, which was published as part of AASLH’s series “Interpreting History.”

Since it would be difficult to condense the entire book into this format, I will be focusing the webinar on initial interpretive planning, including:

  • Deciding if the time is right for your organization to interpret LGBT history
  • Trust building
  • Approaching the sources
  • Conceptualizing your story

The webinar is $40 for AASLH members; $65 for non-members. It will include a sixty-minute real-time presentation and up to thirty minutes for questions and discussion, along with ongoing access to the webinar recording and a discount for 30 percent off the purchase of my book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites. Registration remains open until the start of webinar, but registering early will help us plan appropriately.

“Interpreting the Queer Past” at Mathers Museum, March 3

I will be giving a talk entitled “Interpreting the Queer Past” at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures on Friday, March 3, 2017 from 4:30 to 6:00 pm. The Mathers Museum is located in Bloomington, Indiana, my home base, which makes this talk especially exciting for me, since it’s been a number of years since I gave a talk in my own town.

“Interpreting the Queer Past” is aimed primarily at a general audience, with a little content that will be most relevant to other museum professionals. I will offer a snapshot of the various ways museums are introducing LGBTQ stories into their programming, then consider what we can learn from these efforts as museums move forward with this topic. There will be plenty of time for discussion as well.

If you do make it to the talk, please come up afterward and say hello!


Poster for the talk

Upcoming Appearances, September 2016

If you would like to talk to me or hear me speak this month, Detroit is the place to be! I will be attending the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History September 15th through 17th, and in the course of those three days, I’ll be participating in three roundtable discussions and a tour of a local historic site.

ih-series-signing-smaller-posterOn Thursday, September 15, 2016, at 3:00 pm local time, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers will be hosting a reception for the authors of their “Interpreting History” series, which includes my book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites. Stop by the conference exhibit hall to learn more about the series and to chat with the authors, including myself.

Immediately following Thursday’s publisher reception, at 4:00 pm on September 15, 2016, I’ll be taking part in a public discussion about the book with Russell Lewis, chief historian of the Chicago History Museum and editor of the Rowman & Littlefield series. We’ll be chatting with the audience about the state of LGBT interpretation, as well as suggesting some best practices. This field is evolving at lightening speed, so I’m looking forward to a chance to discuss developments that have occurred since the book’s publication at the start of 2015.

The next day, Friday, September 16, I’ll have the opportunity to whip out my women’s history hat. I’ll be joining Rebecca Price, CEO of ChickHistory, and Lori Osborne, vice-president for operations of the National Collaborative for Women’s History, for a roundtable discussion on interpreting female friendship. This event takes place from 8:30 am until 9:45 am. We’ll be focusing primarily on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when many professional women chose not to marry and instead partnered with other women. What are we to make of these relationships? How do we talk about them to twenty-first-century visitors? Come join the conversation!

Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, one of the women connected to Rochester Hills. National Library of Medicine,

Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, one of the women connected to Rochester Hills. National Library of Medicine, physicians/biography_322.html.

As a complement to the Friday morning roundtable, at 1:30 pm on September 16, I’ll be taking part in an AASLH Women’s History Affinity Group tour of Rochester Hills Museum and Farm, a great-sounding historic site with generations of women’s stories to tell. We’ll tour the site, then facilitate a brainstorming session about how best to introduce stories of strong, non-conformist women to the wider public.

Finally, to wrap up this whirlwind, on Saturday morning, September 17, 2016, at 9:00 am, I’ll be part of a roundtable on women’s history more generally. We’ll be talking about integrating women’s stories into historic preservation, interpretation, and museum programming and tying women’s history to issues of contemporary gender equality. As with the earlier events, we’ll be looking to the audience to engage in the discussion and offer insight.

See you in Detroit!

Welcoming the Next Generation of Historians

Somewhere along the line, I won the mentor lottery. Wonderful, generous people have taken me under their wing at key moments of my career. They have patiently and subtly guided me through various stages of my development, and I still call on many of them quite frequently for advice and feedback.

One of my closest mentors, Paul Weinbaum (with his ever-present cup of coffee), demonstrating one of many environments where historians work.

One of my closest mentors, Paul Weinbaum (with his ever-present cup of coffee), demonstrating one of many environments where historians work.

While it seems like something of a long shot that I could ever replicate their calm, cool counsel, I am nevertheless aware of the debt I owe my elders, and as a result, I do seek out opportunities to meet newer members of our profession and take an interest in their journeys.

That comes into play most often with the students of the Indiana University Department of History (my PhD alma mater). The history department is now one of my clients, and I work with faculty and staff to provide career programming for history students. For the undergraduate history majors, I coordinate the department’s internship program, building relationships with the local history organizations that serve as internship sites, encouraging students to take the skills they’re learning in the classroom and apply them to off-campus work environments, and ensuring that all this match-making results in consistent and high-quality experiences for both intern and supervisor.

My work with graduate students is a little more involved. I am part of a larger effort within IU and the history department to prepare history graduate students for a range of careers that will use the research, writing, and analytical skills they are developing as young historians. This upcoming week, the department will welcome its latest cohort of graduate students, during a series of orientation activities held in advance of the start of classes.

I will be speaking with the students on their very first day of orientation, reminding them that career preparation is a crucial part of their graduate education and alerting them to the range of professional opportunities—not just the professoriate—that they might pursue. This talk aims to introduce them to a departmental culture that prizes versatility and an academic year that will include a range of workshops and encounters designed to increase their knowledge of the work world.

Also this week, I will have the opportunity to speak to the graduate students in the public history program at IU-Bloomington’s sister campus in Indianapolis, IUPUI. Before the start of each school year, the IUPUI program hosts a one-day career development and networking event for current graduate students and local alumni, and I will be giving this year’s keynote address. In my presentation, “Pulling Back the Curtain and Changing the Lens: Current Metaphors of Public History,” I will discuss the ways that my work with LGBTQ history has introduced me to new historical methods, and I will explore their applicability to the wider discipline of public history.

With these various efforts, I have a chance to share some of the insight I’ve gained during my career, while also meeting some of my future colleagues and staying involved in a rich conversation drawn from a range of generational perspectives.

And I have my mentors to thank for showing me how it’s done.

A Stint as Acting Director of the National Council on Public History



Last week, I wrapped up three months as acting director of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), a professional organization that supports practitioners putting history to work in the world. I’ve been an active member of the NCPH for about fifteen years–regularly presenting at annual meetings and volunteering on numerous committees, most recently on the Local Arrangements Committee for the 2017 NCPH annual meeting, which will take place in Indianapolis in April 2017. The opportunity to further engage with the organization arose when the NCPH Board of Directors and executive director, Stephanie Rowe, approached me about filling in for Stephanie while she was out on maternity leave.

As many of you know, I worked for thirteen years at the Organization of American Historians, the largest professional society devoted to United States history. My recent time on staff at the NCPH allowed me to once again get behind the scenes at a historical organization and support the profession by fostering community among practitioners and providing assistance as they carry out their important work.

The NCPH is an extremely well-run institution, so jumping into such an important role proved to be easier than I was anticipating. In addition to overseeing the day-to-day operations of the non-profit, my projects included collaborating with the NCPH vice-president, Marla Miller, to appoint volunteers to the NCPH’s numerous committees; enhancing the NCPH’s partnership with the International Federation for Public History as the IFPH prepared for its annual meeting in Bogotá; and responding to input and advocacy requests from the organization’s members.

I enjoyed this chance to apply my skills and experience in an executive capacity while also assisting a historical organization with a short-term staffing shortage. I hope to take on similar efforts in the future, so please do let me know if you are aware of such opportunities.

Stephanie Rowe and Sue at the 2016 NCPH annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.

Stephanie Rowe and Sue at the 2016 NCPH annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland.

Upcoming Appearances

I will be making a number of appearances in the upcoming months, to discuss various issues related to LGBT museum interpretation.  If you attend these events, do be sure to introduce yourself to me afterwards, especially if you’re involved in a museum that is involved in, or considering, interpreting this topic.

Pride IN History LogoOctober 22, 2015

6:30-8:00 pm

Indianapolis, IN


As part of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) History Month, the Indiana Historical Society will be hosting a discussion about how museums discuss the history of and connect with LGBT communities. As part of this event I will be presenting information from my book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites. Indianapolis photographer Mark A. Lee will also discuss his experience as a guest curator of the exhibition based on his work, on view at the History Center October 10 through November 14. Cost is $8/ $5 for IHS members. For more information, or to buy tickets, visit


ncwhs logoOct. 26, 2015

3:00-4:00 pm eastern


The National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites is holding its annual member meeting via conference call on Monday, October 26 from 3:00 to 4:00 pm eastern time. I will be this year’s featured speaker. I will discuss the ways historians approach the study of same-sex relationships; the challenges to uncovering this past; and the efforts of museums, historic sites, and community groups to preserve this history and present it to the wider public. To learn more about the event and to register for the meeting, visit


2016-NCPHSHFG-Program-CoverMarch 16-19, 2016

(specific date TBA)

Baltimore, MD

Along with Frank Futral and Megan Springate, I will be co-facilitating a workshop entitled “Daring to Speak It’s Name: Interpreting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pasts at Historic Sites” as part of the National Council on Public History annual meeting. In this workshop, we will consider best practices in LGBTQ museum interpretation and offer hands-on exercises in small groups. For exact time and more information, visit


April 7, 2016

1:45-3:15 pm

Providence, RI

As part of the Organization of American Historians annual meeting, I will be participating in a roundtable on “New Directions in LGBTQ Public History.” Almost from its inception as a field, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/ Queer (LGBTQ) history has been intertwined with public history as researchers created slideshow presentations, archives, and small exhibits about the history of LGBTQ experiences. Since then, people have created LGBTQ museums, cultural institutions have put up exhibits about topics on gender and sexuality, and most recently the National Park Service has embarked on several initiatives to incorporate LGBTQ history into its sites and programs. This roundtable will consist of public history practitioners and academics, who will discuss recent developments in the field, how public representations of this history have changed, and the complicated narratives of inclusions that have often accompanied them. For more information on the conference, visit



Exploring Museums at the Crossroads

Mid-career professionals don’t often have the luxury of retreating from day-to-day demands and reflecting on the larger meaning of their work. Yet, that’s exactly what I was able to do earlier this month. The Indiana University School of Global and International Studies and the Mathers Museum of World Cultures teamed up to host “Museums at the Crossroads: Local Knowledge, Global Encounters,” an eight-day summer institute held May 14-21, 2015. And I had the privilege of being one of the selected participants.

Casts of Heads

A glimpse into the collections of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

The idea behind Museums at the Crossroads was to gather museum professionals from around the world to explore the various intersections museums currently occupy. Most of the delegates were from the United States, although we also had participants from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. The disciplinary expertise of the group focused on anthropology, folklore, and history, reflecting the emphasis of the Mathers Museum, where the institute took place.

The symposium centered around three professional “crossroads” for museums, described as follows:

  • Cultural Crossroads: the challenge of understanding interconnected, global cultures that are no longer easily categorized, as they were in the era in which many of the world’s most prominent museums came into being, along a traditional normative scale ranging from “civilized” to “primitive”
  • Disciplinary Crossroads: the challenge of adapting institutions steeped in disciplinary tradition (as sites for the practice of history, anthropology, natural history, etc.) to the new work of scholarly disciplines increasingly inclined to draw upon one another’s methods and sources in their shared pursuit of understanding of the human condition
  • Artifactual Crossroads: the challenge of adapting to the blurred lines that now separate traditionally defined categories of “virtual” and “real” in our encounters with the material world
Group gathered around a museum display of a historic plow

Museums at the Crossroads participants grapple with innovative ways to understand the tools of the pioneer era.

The various crossroads provided a great framework for our explorations, though in reality our process was more free-wheeling than the above description implies. We heard keynotes from some amazing thinkers—Steven Lubar, Michael Brown, Stephan Fuchs, and Haidy Geismar. We visited numerous local museums. We spent two days exploring the collections of the Mathers Museum and brainstorming about how we might use the crossroads to inspire new ways of interpreting the objects. And we engaged in hundreds of conversations large and small—over dinners, over coffee, on walks through this sleepy college town—about how we might use these ideas in our own work, so that in the aggregate we might have some small influence on the museum gumbo that is emerging in our global, digital age.

From the beginning, the institute’s organizers (the incomparable Jason Baird Jackson, Eric Sandweiss, and Sarah Hatcher) were clear that there would be no formal objective to our wanderings, no deliverable to be hammered out. Instead, they envisioned something more organic: seeds planted, relationships formed. I believe they more than realized that vision.

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.


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.


Susan Ferentinos is proudly powered by WordPress.
Theme "The Fundamentals of Graphic Design" by Arjuna
Icons by FamFamFam