It’s been a slow process to get back to being a functional historian. The first step was doing the work of a public historian. A VT research assistant and I photographed the 9 historic structures owned by the Town of Blacksburg, including the Armory Building, pictured here — it was rhythmic, practical, and tangible. Photography is something I enjoy a great deal and, along with rowing, is not something I have been able to do much of since I started my career. I was happy that this project coming out of my preservation class gave me the chance to get back to it.

The entrance to the Armory Building in Blacksburg, VA


My wife and I went out on Thursday for just the third time since our son’s birth, this time to see Lincoln.

Several historians chimed in with their opinions and evaluations at film’s release. Kate Masur, a historian of slavery race and Washington, D.C., critiqued the film’s portrayal of African Americans as passive and bland characters waiting for emancipation to be handed to them — even when the actual figures portrayed worked to support escaped slaves and were leaders of the District’s black community. Notably, she emphasizes,

It is a well-known pastime of historians to quibble with Hollywood over details. Here, however, the issue is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice. A stronger African-American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit.

This is true — “fact-checking” films is a cottage industry for historians great and small. But Masur makes another important point — that the way stories are told is important to how we respond to them. Whether White House servant Keckley had a poignant exchange with Lincoln (or whether her costume in the film was accurate) is really less important than her overall portrayal — whether the spirit of her character was right and represented her (and other African Americans’) own efforts to oppose slavery.

Historian Eric Foner basically validates DDL’s version of Lincoln but makes a similar point about interpretation — the audience is left with the impression that Lincoln was the sole force for passage of the 13th Amendment, rather than working within a broad set of movements and forces set against slavery (and, at times, stalling them). In essence, we see too much of the Washington inside game.

Timothy Burke responds to Foner’s critique and puts the issue as really a tension between accuracy and narrative. In service of narrative, screenwriter Tony Kushner made some interpretive choices that ring hollow for historians, but work to make a more watchable film.

If we’re going to have that argument through and around cinema, we would be wise to always avoid scolding a film for inaccuracy. Finger-wagging is a death trap for public intellectuals: it keeps us from appreciating the complexity of how a film or other cultural work can have meaning for its audiences, and it casts us outside and above the world of ordinary spectatorship. More importantly, most historians know better than to claim there’s a linear relationship between “accuracy” and “critical thought”, the latter being what most historians would like to see as the outcome of reading or learning about the past from a trustworthy source.

This is a useful point, but a bit irrelevant to Masur and Foner’s kinds of points, that the content of historical films is worth debating and evaluating. Burke’s point is really more about the meaning of films, regardless of the accuracy of its historical content — the cultural historian’s assertion of the film as a historical fact or object, or machine for creating historical memory in its own right. There is a similar kind of debate over perspectives in public history (or reception, in classics, for example).

But my critique of the film, and de facto response to Burke, is that even taking the film on its own terms, it exhibits key failings. [Let's just stipulate that the anecdoting and speechifying was out of control and it seemed like Kushner was trying to outdo Aaron Sorkin's Jed Bartlett for erudite but down home wit. I mean, Jesus, did his dictation of a telegram have to be a grand speech? And his joke of a one-paragraph speech at the flag-raising to seem totally clever?] Lincoln was criticized by Radical Republicans (and others) for moving too slowly on emancipation, but Kushner ultimately redeems Lincoln’s caution. The president was wrestling with the moral and legal issues and, even when he made up his own mind, he had a keen sense of the politics — he was not about to move before the issue was ready to pass. So he waited for the lame duck session, faced down criticism from left and right, cajoled and log rolled Congressmen, and ultimately won the day. This is the essence of Lincoln’s heroic actions — caution, prudence, and conviction, but agency bounded by the limits of the political system of his time.

Congressmen are given no such consideration or charitable interpretation, though Lincoln himself had served in the lower House. Nearly every Congressman is presented as a racial reactionary or supremely self-interested — each choice is made simply on personal grounds revealing either nobility or lack of character. The lens of political history, I think, helps us understand that each of those Congressmen were going through their own deliberations and were pulled by a multiplicity of changing forces, personally, and within their district, just as Lincoln was facing. Sure, the 20 Democrats may have been lame ducks not running for re-election, but were they really free of political concerns? What if they were to face off in an election rematch 2 years later? Or were hoping for a non-patronage position in their district from a business leader? Or what if they had a law firm or some other professional enterprise that required staying within the Democratic mainstream in their district? We know none of this, though it must be true for several of the men, and the point is belabored when the audience considers Lincoln’s process (to his ultimate benefit). Fernando Wood, one of the nastiest opponents of the amendment in the film, fit this very description. A New York City machine Democrat, he lost in 1864, but ran again in 1866 and won — we might just as well blame the machine Democrats of New York City for his opposition, but again, we would have no idea that they might be a consideration in this personal, moral question.

Thus, the film uses two different lenses for different politicians, one sensitive for examining Lincoln, the other uncharitable and warped for examining the Congressmen. Though Kushner put words in their mouths and gave the politicians some agency, he did it so sloppily and lazily that I think he did violence to them. In that sense, I echo Kate Masur’s point rather than Eric Foner’s — it’s not that Kushner and Spielberg chose to foreground one perspective at the expense of another, it’s that they actually misrepresented a set of characters by violating their own logic of representation within the film. And this is the key issue historians should have with the film.

Obama Presidential Library Part 2

To continue my discussion from Part 1, not only should the Obama Presidential Library and Museum be located in Chicago, it should be affiliated with the University of Chicago. This is not a particularly controversial proposition — many of the libraries since FDR are affiliated with or located near an institution of higher education: FDR with Marist, Kennedy with UMass-Boston, Johnson with Texas, Nixon with CSU Fullerton, Ford with Michigan, Bush I with TAMU, Clinton with Arkansas-Little Rock, and Bush II with SMU.

The Obamas’ relationship with the University is clear and strong, intellectually and institutionally. Efforts to affiliate with a public institution like UIC would be a wonderful gesture at inclusiveness, but it’s not clear they have the capacity to support the institution (though UIC could probably spare some land).

The question of land hangs on any University of Chicago location. The institution is in the middle of a significant redevelopment and expansion effort with new hospital buildings, a new library and more on the way. The logistics and disruptiveness of a location contiguous with the main campus are likely too difficult to overcome, as residential neighborhoods pin down the university on the east and the area between the campus and Washington Park is limited.

The Woodlawn neighborhood makes a great deal of sense and the University of Chicago is in part responsible for its current difficult circumstances. President Obama’s own position with the University of Chicago Law School makes this area even more poignant as a locale for the library and museum.

The Laird Bell Law Quadrangle was conceived of and constructed in the midst of the University of Chicago’s key neighborhood interventions of the 1950s, opening in 1959. As the demographic transformation of the Great Migration reached Hyde Park, the university felt threatened by the incoming population of poor and working class African Americans and by the new class of exploitative landlords who converted grand apartment buildings into cramped kitchenette units. Hoping to insulate themselves from Woodlawn, in particular, the neighborhood south of the Midway Plaisance that saw the greatest growth in black population, university leaders worked to take all of the land between 60th and 61st Street and extend the campus, while they also promoted the construction of a highway that would separate the University of Chicago from the neighborhood. I talk about this a bit in my article on the U of C and in a chapter of my book manuscript.

The university bought up properties that they feared landlords would convert to the rooming houses. In some cases, the U of C neglected the properties and let areas deteriorate in order to facilitate their own redevelopment plans. Uncertainty about the area hung over the neighborhood, so many landlords did not invest in their property, expecting that it would eventually be taken by eminent domain. By walling off the U of C community–the highway effort failed but the institution pursued other measures–wealth and investment was directed to Hyde Park and segregated from the Woodlawn community, intensifying the disparities between the two communities. The university eventually did take control of the mile of land between Washington Park and the Illinois Central rail lines south of the Midway and pursued its own redevelopment projects there.

The Obama library would, necessarily, resonate as another of these interventionist redevelopment projects. Even despite that it could be a spur to economic, social, and intellectual development *for the resident population* in the neighborhood.

First, it must have a design that engages the neighborhood, overcoming the frequent challenges of security, parking, and signature starchitecture. People will come from around the city, the state, the region, the country, and the world to visit the Obama Museum and Library. Many of them will come in their cars, requiring a great deal of parking that could be an obstacle to public engagement. The LBJ museum, even though it is in a pretty big city and is on the edge of a large university campus, is fairly separated and isolated from everyday pedestrian life in Austin. You would either drive to that edge of campus, or you would have a looong walk to get there, even as a student. Same with the Ford Library in Ann Arbor on the University of Michigan’s North Campus (The Ford Museum in Grand Rapids is better placed in this regard.) Same with the JFK Library in Boston — a train will get you about a mile away, then a bus will get you there, but it can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re not from Boston or familiar with the T system.

A Sanborn map of the Woodlawn area from 1926.

A location in Woodlawn has the possibility of drawing tourists via public transportation, especially elevated CTA Green line, which terminates at 63rd and Cottage Grove. There is also a Metra regional rail line with a stop on the east edge of Hyde Park that could handle some of this. The use of public transportation by visitors would limit the number of cars and make the parking facilities less sprawling, keeping the whole area more urban and walkable. This is desirable because the point of placing the library in Woodlawn would not be to turn the area into a bourgeois suburban playspace, but to bring an asset and development to the neighborhood without overrunning it. Visitors staying at a hotel in the Loop could take the CTA down for the morning, spend a few hours at the library and either head to Hyde Park for lunch (not well connected to the El) or go back up to the Loop — even if they drove to Chicago there would be no need to drive to the library. The key would be putting the library within about 3 or 4 blocks of a train stop. You could run a shuttle bus to the library, but I favor having tourists do some walking, maybe to buy a coffee or a drink on the way at the shops that would inevitably spring up to serve the library visitors. (No doubt there would be some political and legal wrangling, but even a location at the southwest corner of Washington Park near the DuSable Museum of African American history seems plausible to me.)

View Larger Map

Second, it should have a robust educational outreach program and an archival/museological/historical training program. It’s quite clear that the election of Barack Obama as president has enabled parents and teachers of black children (and minorities of all races and ethnicities) to tell their kids and students that anything is possible for African Americans — even leader of the free world (see Ta-Nehisi Coates for a recent example attesting to this.) That kind of priceless inspiration — from someone in their own city — could have oven more import, be even more directly felt, and have even more of a lasting legacy through a presidential library integrated into the community. Such an institutional commitment would come not just through regular school field trips, but especially at the high school level, to teach students about the process of doing research, of handling (conserved) archival materials, and of creating knowledge about politics and public policy, President Obama, his administration, and race in the 21st century. Such an asset would be unparalleled for an urban school system like Chicago Public Schools and could turn Woodlawn into a more desirable neighborhood for residency. Ironically, it would be something like this that would fulfill the University of Chicago’s long-held desire to promote development and middle-class residence in Woodlawn — not demolition, but, through engagement, a process of market-based demographic succession.

Would this take more staff? Yes. Would it take a different set of priorities in planning for the library and museum? Yes. Would it be a greater planning challenge? Probably not — any presidential library is a significant planning challenge, and it is simply a matter of priorities and values. While it might take more money, President Obama has certainly illustrated his ability to draw on generous donors for his political campaigns — devoting such effort to something that would not only preserve his legacy, but enhance it, seems to me to be a simple question.

The Obama Presidential Library, Part One

Discussion about the location of the Obama Presidential Library and Museum has been surfacing in a handful of media sources (and fan sites). Most recently, the Chicago Sun-Times published an article with pre-emptive criticism of an effort to bring the Obama library to the University of Chicago.

“I want to raise the alarm because I think a presidential museum will inevitably become our university’s highest-profile institution on a national basis,” Political Science Professor Charles Lipson said. “It will not be a disinterested, scholarly institution. It will be advancing a political agenda, funded by President Obama’s political allies, including foreign donors who cannot give money to his presidential campaigns.”

The Reagan Library in California attracts conservative speakers and serves as a launching pad for Republican ideas, Lipson said.

We can rather easily dismiss this as nonsense. Not that it is gibberish, but that it is overstating a criticism of presidential libraries in fundamentally meaningless ways. While initial capital funds for presidential libraries are raised privately, and largely from political allies and sympathetic donors, this is not inherently a problem. After the construction of a building, the National Archives and Records Administration populates the staff with non-political, thoroughly professional staff, including academic and public historians, and assumes almost all operational costs. Often there is a private foundation that provides some other funds for programs or researchers, as well. This kind of public-private partnership results in a better, more robust physical plant than the federal government would invest in, so up-front private fundraising makes sense and is a fairly responsible engagement with private interests.* As for programs and scholars, I question Lipson’s familiarity with the work of the presidential museums and libraries. A quick peek at the Gerald Ford Museum programs in 2012, for example, include a speaker on Bob Hope, a speaker on Michigan Football, a speaker on energy issues in the Ford administration, a speaker on the assassination of James Garfield, and three journalists on presidents, the legacy of Vietnam, and the growth of the national security state. The Lyndon Johnson Library and Museum has a similarly mixed though higher profile list: Christopher Buckley, Laura Bush, Stephen Breyer, Sissy Spacek, Bill Moyers, and Mikhail Gorbachev, among others. Are Christopher Buckley and Laura Bush’s political bona fides really in question?

Opposition to an Obama Presidential Library and Museum on political grounds is not a serious criticism. If there is one legitimate criticism that can be made of presidential libraries, it is against the Reagan Museum and Library, which did not employ adequate professional staff and procedures and suffered the theft of thousands (possibly even tens of thousands) of artifacts, according to an audit by the Office of the Inspector General.

The two competitor locales would seem to be the other places with strong associations with Obama, Hawai’i (likely the University of Hawai’i) where the president was born, and Cambridge/Harvard, where he went to law school. Harvard and Boston seem less likely, as there is already the Kennedy museum and library, and Obama will never have the strength of association with Harvard that Kennedy did. Indeed, Chicago is Obama’s Boston — the place he lived and represented as an adult, the city he chose to establish his identity and power base.

*I offer the caveat that in many cases the starchitect designs often leave something to be desired in terms of engagement with surroundings.

See Part 2 on the Obama Presidential Library and Museum.

Case Statement for NCPH New Deal Working Group

See this post for background on the NCPH Working Group.

As other members of the working group have noted, academic historians and popular audiences alike tend to recognize the importance of the New Deal and much of its legacy.1 In the course of my research, however, I have come to believe that both scholars and the public underestimate the extent and scope of the New Deal’s work relief and public works projects. The PWA, for example, provided grants and loans to public institutions of higher education for housing, administrative, instructional and maintenance facilities. In total, the PWA enabled the creation of 1286 college buildings worth $747 million2 through $83 million in grants and $29 million in loans.3 At my institution, Virginia Tech (then Virginia Polytechnic Institute), the PWA helped fund the construction or expansion of 14 buildings, including what is now the administration building, the student center, and several dormitories — Virginia Tech, in terms of its physical plant, is a New Deal institution.

Owing to this underestimation, I am interested in building out such a national inventory to help reinvigorate popular appreciation of the New Deal, making it publicly accessible through the web, and enriching it with historical data and media including photographs, oral histories, film, and audio, where possible. While a number of recent controversies and the broader conservative effort to roll back the New Deal have rallied defenders to the Roosevelt administration’s relief and infrastructure efforts, my experience indicates that a broader-based effort to reconnect the public with New Deal public and art works would be more effective in building public support than targeted defense of particular projects or the Roosevelt administration.

In pursuit of this project, I would like to suggest a mixed strategy of centralized and decentralized efforts including building a central inventory through National Archives research, but enriching it through state-level efforts or crowdsourced contributions led by working group participants. I could contribute my PWA higher ed database, for example, and lead groups in photographing or researching the history of individual VA sites. While such a strategy would lead to uneven enrichment, it would provide a central spine of information to build from, and would allow for school groups, college courses, or communities of interest at the public history grassroots to make a meaningful contribution to a national effort that also expressed local or regional pride.

  1. Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism; Robert Leighninger, Long-Range Public Investment
  2. Approx. $11.4B in 2011 dollars
  3. Records of Projects, 1933-1950; List of Alotted Non-Federal Projects as of May, 1942 RG 135 NARA II

Reconstructing the New Deal

NCPH Working Group:

10. Reconstructing the New Deal: Towards a National Inventory of New Deal Art and Public Works
Eileen Eagan, University of Southern Maine; eagan@usm.maine.edu
Gray Brechin, University of California at Berkeley; gbrechin@berkeley.edu
Sean Lent, Independent Scholar; sean.lent@maine.edu

This working group centers on interdisciplinary efforts to locate, collect, and bring to light the federally sponsored art and public works of the New Deal. We also plan to relate discussion of New Deal projects to recent controversies such as that over the labor history mural in Maine. This is public history in terms of locating and interpreting public sources and also doing so in relation to public policy. It also represents cultural democracy on the edge of capitalism, and its crash. This revival and renewal of New Deal history seems especially essential in light of recent debates over the impact of New Deal policy and efforts to forget or distort the legacy of those policies. A group at the University of California at Berkeley has developed the California Living New Deal project to map New Deal projects in California. Groups elsewhere, including Maine, have engaged students in similar projects in those areas. A new project could expand these efforts into a national inventory. This working group will bring together faculty and students involved in these efforts. We invite others from around the country to join us in this discussion and planning to pursue this project. Eileen Eagan and Sean Lent will discuss and present results from the activity in Maine. Gray Brechin, from the Geography department at UC Berkeley will discuss his experiences and plans based on the California project. He will also assert the urgent need for a national inventory of New Deal public works. Discussion by the people attending the working group will follow short presentations by Brechin, Eagan and Lent. This working group will take place at the Milwaukee Public Museum, a short two block walk from the Frontier Airlines Center.

Historians and the Public

Thomas Bender, from a recent paper on historians and public engagement:

The scholar, for Dewey, does not approach the public as an expert, but rather as one of the public. But, and this is crucial, he or she is a member of the public with special access to a fund of knowledge and rigorous forms of thought that he or she can bring to matters of concern. After exploring the relevant esoteric knowledge available to him or her, the scholar must bring that knowledge back to the public in the language of the public without claiming the authority of expertise, but rather relying upon persuasion in the public sphere. Intellect in public involves listening as well as speaking.

It would have been nice to see him read or make reference to Michael Frisch’s A Shared Authority (since he’s talking about public history), which emphasizes this idea of listening and the role of the public in creating and expanding on the relevant historical knowledge. It’s not just “rigorous forms of thought” or “esoteric knowledge.” Sometimes it’s just directing inquiry into a local community.

Temple University Public History

Two short videos I put together with Seth Bruggeman to help explain and promote the public history program at Temple University. One on Temple and History, the other on how public history differs from traditional historical training (and what it has in common).

We took a little different approach with this set of videos from what I did at Loyola. Instead of a lengthy, comprehensive video, these minute-long clips can be contextualized and viewed individually, or can be put together to make up a longer video. There are two more in the pipeline.

Teaching Digital History Part II

Good things to build on in the digital history course: In each case, students came out of the class with a basic level of comfort with a variety of digital media tools that they would not otherwise have approached. One or two students had used Photoshop, one or two Audacity, generally for personal projects, but had not really used these for historical purposes, such as digitization, interpretation, or presentation. This was one of the biggest hurdles — getting people over the “I’m not good with computers” hump. Photoshop seems overwhelming when you first use it, as does Final Cut, as do many programs, but the basics of the programs are not very complicated. This is a failure of undergraduate education, I think, and one that I deal with a bit in this post, but until we integrate digital training into the BA, this is a problem a LOT of graduate students/programs are going to have to deal with. Everyone who came through the courses can now think of themselves as media-capable and, with some skill maintenance, can sell themselves that way on the job market.

Perhaps more importantly, students also have exposure to alternate forms of storytelling. I tell students, historians have really nailed text — we have many different ways of reading texts and presenting through textual means — but there are more ways (and sometimes more effective ways) of presenting a story or argument. The museum exhibit has long been a prominent one, but the video documentary, the audio documentary, the map, and others are now increasingly available for historians to create and use. With the capital requirements much less, students have to rethink how to tell stories in these media. In some ways, these forms are much freer and provide much more opportunity than publications (but it also comes with risks). There is no style sheet for placing pauses in a narrative, as there is for a journal article. But knowing how to use a moment of silence in an oral history can change the effects of a story, and students have to get their minds around this. As grad students sit in front of computers for hours working on papers and trying to get their punctuation, their grammar, and their phrasing just right, so too they must sit in front of editing stations with headphones on and listen to their cuts again and again. Students have some experience with this and recognize some of the demands of such a production, as well as the possibilities of engaging the eyes and the ears in new ways.

What will need some remedy: the workload and preparing students for the workload. The first time I taught the course, students did not need to do primary research as part of their project. Their assignments and final project were more about investigating and experimenting with a medium. The most recent time, I wanted to emphasize the continuum from research/archive to digital project, so I developed a collaborative course project in which students would do archival work (at campus repositories) and base their digital projects on that research. Students felt that this was too much work. They considered it on par with a research seminar, which had products that they were much more accustomed to (papers). They hadn’t been expecting this kind of workload. But they did a good job on the project. This may be a difficult issue to fix. I’m committed to a course in which students have projects that actually reach and serve the public, and graduate students’ strength is in their research capabilities — I think we have to have research be the foundation for these digital, public projects, or this isn’t really a graduate level course.

What to do: One idea I am considering would be turning this into a two-course sequence, fall being a graduate-student-only seminar on digital scholarship that focused on the academic and intellectual implications of our new digital capabilities (perhaps with some research contributing to a year-long project); spring would be a mixed grad-student/undergrad course that was much more oriented towards workshops and skill-building, where the final assignments would be the media projects, incorporating the research the grad students had done in the previous semester. This could help solve the issue of the undergrads and could provide opportunities for grad-level research without overwhelming them with the media projects in the same semester. There is also precedent for the two-course sequence, I think, in the Readings-Seminar sequence that many grad programs run. The question might be how to get students to take both semesters — the answer would probably be to create a digital concentration within the degree and make the two courses both required.

Another possibility would also be to take on less ambitious and demanding projects and allow students to determine and create their own projects. This will require some more thought.


Teaching Digital History Part I

The occasion of going public with my graduate class’ semester project in digital history got me thinking about the course more broadly, particularly as I’m (re)developing it for the upcoming semester at Virginia Tech.

I have taught the class twice, both times as part of a public history graduate program. The first instance was at Loyola University Chicago, the second was at Temple University. That these were public history courses was an important condition influencing how I structured the course, the readings, the assignments, etc. For those who don’t know, public history is a professionally oriented sub-specialization that educates and trains historians to work outside the academy. Museums, historic preservation, archives, government historians — public historians, all.

While digital training is increasingly important to all historians, those who prioritize work with the public have somewhat distinctive interests. If I can sum it up concisely, public historians are more interested in the digital as tools for communication rather than tools for analysis. Thus, for public historians, using digital applications should facilitate storytelling, promoting the public’s engagement with narrative and causal explanations. There’s a good bit of potential overlap between the skills that a public historian and an academic historian might want to use — blogs, for example. And a tool for communication like a blog or a twitter feed could also become a tool for analysis, eg by querying the databases and looking at how people are discussing a historical topic. But there are different priorities between the two types.

The basic structure I have used in both courses is a two-part semester, where we begin with readings on the history of media change, what I have called “when Old Media was New.” Jurgen Habermas on newspapers, coffee houses, and the public sphere; Alan Trachtenberg on photography; Marshall McLuhan on everything up through television. The point was to orient students to past changes in media environments and get them to think critically about claims of a digital revolution — how this revolution differed from the communications revolutions of the past.

This was followed by a series of workshops on different areas of digital communications, such as html, databases, and the web; digital mapping; or video production. In each workshop I highlighted a particular program, but provided context for understanding the basics of other similar programs. So, for example, I taught students how to use Adobe Photoshop for scanning and editing photos, but also taught them the basics of digital imaging so that they could handle digital images wherever they came across them — in whatever format and with whatever program. Each workshop had an assignment to complete so that students could demonstrate competence and also produce a digital work sample for their portfolio.

These efforts built up to a collaborative semester project. In one case, students chose their project that contributed to a larger digital humanities project in collaboration with another university. In the most recent case, the project was to research a local history topic and, through the assignments, create digital materials to incorporate into a web site to publish the research. The topic was the history of interaction between Temple University and North Philadelphia. Working with the Urban Archives, students digitized archival images and created metadata, then incorporated the digital images into the pages of the site. With these steps, they are seeing the whole analog to digital transformation process on a project.

Next up: what worked, what didn’t, and why.