Archive for Skills

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.

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 https://blooloop.com/features/aam-2017-american-museums/

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)

History Exhibit Opens at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater


Picture of exhibit

Exhibit opening at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington, February 3, 2017

Last week, an exhibit I’ve been working on for a number of years opened at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater“A Thing of Beauty and a Joy Forever”: The History of Bloomington’s Community Theater recounts the history of a nearly-century-old venue just off the downtown square in Bloomington, Indiana. Today, the building is known as the Burkirk-Chumley Theater, a six-hundred-seat performing arts venue that has played a significant role in the revitalization of downtown Bloomington over the past fifteen years. Before that, the building housed the Indiana Theatre, an 1,100-seat movie palace built in 1922.

The designer and the researcher in front of an exhibit panel.

Jennifer Hottell (right) and I in front of the opening panel of our exhibit.

 

The roots of the current exhibit go back about ten years, when I conducted preliminary research into the history of the building, which is part of the Bloomington Downtown Square National Register District. From this project came a much more basic exhibit designed to answer some common questions from visitors about the history of the theater, which–after a period of decline–was renovated to reflect its 1930s heyday as part of its conversion into a contemporary performing arts hall.

A few years ago, the theater received funding from Indiana Humanities to conduct further research into two aspects of the Indiana Theatre’s past: the desegregation of the theater in the 1940s and the immigrant history represented by the Indiana Sweet Shop, a candy store housed in one of the building’s storefronts, which operated for over sixty years. The effort involved the expansion of the original history exhibit to include both the new research and more of the original research than made it into the first exhibit.

I was brought on as the project historian, performing documentary research, conducting oral histories, and creating the text for the ultimate exhibit. Jennifer Hottell, a Bloomington-based graphic designer, joined the team to reconceptualize the visual presentation of the information. The final result–incorporating my research, Jenn’s design, and oversight and input from the Buskirk-Chumley’s executive director Danielle McClelland–is a multi-media exploration of this theater, Bloomington history, and the movie palace era in general. It will be on permanent display at the Buskirk-Chumley until the theater’s hundredth anniversary in 2022.

One of the exhibit panels.

The exhibit panel discussing the theater’s desegregation.

The technology panel of the exhibit.

The exhibit panel exploring the changing technology of showing movies.

Year in Review: 2016


As is my habit at the end of the year, I took a few minutes this morning to reflect on the past twelve months–to note the achievements and ponder how to make next year even more productive and full of joy. (Happily, when you love your work, those two goals tend go hand in hand!)

Personally and professionally, for me, 2016 was great. I reached a number of milestones, expanded my client base, and began applying my expertise to a wider range of historical endeavors.

Perhaps the most exciting news of the year was that my book, Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, won the 2016 book award from the National Council on Public History! It was such an honor. And, coincidentally, for the next few days, the book is on sale at the publisher’s website. You can save 35% by using the code RLWEB3516.

In other publication news, the National Park Service released its LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study, to which I contributed (and about which you can read here). I published a book review (and just submitted another one!) in CHOICE and an exhibit review in The Public Historian. In addition, I published three articles:

This year, I also co-facilitated a learning lab–“LGBTQ for Me and You”–at the PastForward conference, the annual gathering of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Speaking at this conference is by invitation only, so it was an honor to be invited. In addition, this past year I served on the plenary panel of the Hoosier Women at Work conference; presented at the American Association for State and Local History, The Future of History Graduate Education, and the Organization of American Historians conferences; and gave talks at the University of Massachusetts, IUPUI, President Lincoln’s Cottage, and the Van Abbemuseum.

When I wasn’t writing or speaking, I was consulting, and 2016 saw me begin working with a number of new clients. They include:

I look forward to writing more about these projects in the new year! I also did some pro bono consulting with the Congressional Commission on an American Women’s History Museum, which recently submitted its report to Congress and the President of the United States.

Finally, during 2016 I began to stretch myself a bit intellectually. Although much of my work the past few years has focused on women’s history and LGBTQ interpretation in museums, I am in the process of reaching out to encompass other areas of expertise. I served as acting executive director of the National Council on Public History for three months this past summer, and I am currently working on multiple historic preservation projects as well as an article on the history of sexuality more generally (that is, beyond LGBTQ expressions).

What a year! I can’t wait to see what new adventures 2017 brings along.

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


“NCPH INSPIRES PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT WITH THE PAST AND SERVES THE NEEDS OF PRACTITIONERS IN PUTTING HISTORY TO WORK IN THE WORLD BY BUILDING COMMUNITY AMONG HISTORIANS, EXPANDING PROFESSIONAL SKILLS AND TOOLS, FOSTERING CRITICAL REFLECTION ON HISTORICAL PRACTICE, AND PUBLICLY ADVOCATING FOR HISTORY AND HISTORIANS.” – NCPH MISSION STATEMENT –

 

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.

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.

Up-To-Date with Oral History


Showing off my certificate of completionTruth be told, I started doing oral history back in the ’90s. I was a community activist long before I was an academically-trained historian, and I got started in the whole history thing by getting involved with a community history project focused on capturing the history of lesbian feminism in central Texas. It was a delightful way to fall in love with history, and it’s also what got me started in oral history. Once I finally got myself to graduate school, I continued on with oral history, conducting interviews on the establishment of the local domestic violence shelter and working with the Indiana University Center for the Study of History and Memory.

But, admittedly, it had been awhile. So this summer I decided to brush up on my skills by participating in a Baylor University Institute for Oral History training on oral history basics. And let me tell you, I really enjoyed myself. The fine folks at Baylor (including Stephen Sloan, current president of the Oral History Association) walked us through the process of project planning, logistics, ethics, and interviewing, then gave us a few months to go out in the world and put our training into practice, creating a project plan and conducting an interview. For me, this also involved a crash course on archival quality recording equipment and a laborious journey to get approved by a university Institutional Review Board (IRB)… not the most enjoyable part of the process, but necessary.

I am delighted to declare that I am now officially ready to go. My certificate of completion arrived from Baylor a few days ago; I have worked out the technological kinks; and I have taken IRB training on working with human subjects. And a good thing, too, as I expect to start conducting oral history interviews of some local entrepreneurs next month!

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