This week changed things up and instead of attending class; we attended a lecture on social focused public history practices put on by Temple Libraries and the Center for Public History. This lecture featured Michael Frisch (Professor of History & American Studies at the University at Buffalo, SUNY), Erin Bernard (creator of the History Truck), and Cindy Little (Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent). The talk focused on the work the three of them have done in the fields of public history and how they are trying to keep it focused on the community.
Frisch’s talk centered around his passion for oral history based projects and his work in Buffalo to make material more accessible to the public. This was shown through his digitized commons project in which they attempted to use digital media to revitalize the public libraries, by allowing the community to act as social curators. This was a fascinating way to use public history with digital humanities in order to reach out to the public and get them engaged with the past. The other interesting thing that Frisch was working on was an app based project called pixstori, in which people using their phones can take pictures of things and then add audio stories about the object that is then upload to a database for anyone to view. After the lecture myself and some other students in the class and the topic of using pixstori as a way to create community driven self-guided tours was brought up, to which Frisch explained that the app would allow multiple people to each add stories for a picture of a place that someone else using the app could follow and learn about the history of the area. This was an awesome way to take public history into the future as it would allow individuals to share personal stories and connects to a place to the rest of the world.
The next person to talk was Erin Bernard, who gave a brief history of her work with the History Truck. Erin discussed the process of working with the community in order to record oral histories as well as set up exhibits based on materials from the community as well as art created based off the oral histories. This was a great way to bring the oral histories to life and present it in a way that engages with the audience. This was important to Erin because she wanted the History Truck to focus on how we use public space to get to topics that matter most to a community, such as the project with East Kensington focusing on mill fires or North Philly on Temple university building. This talk was very useful as it demonstrated how to successfully use public history to engage with the community and really reflect the idea of shared authority over history.
The final member of the panel to talk was Cindy Little, in which she discussed her work with Philly Moving Past. This project set up 54 block parties throughout the city over the course of the summer in 1982, and involved people looking up their house in old census records and maps. This was an interesting project as it allowed people to engage in discussion not only on the past through topics of family and gender but also to ask, “what is our future.” This type of conversation between Cindy’s group and the community was a great way to explore deeper historical topics through a simply task of looking up census records.
All three of the presenters illustrated unique and useful ways to work with the public in order to create the sense of a shared authority on the past. Furthermore, they demonstrate the need to go beyond seeing public history as a discussion between “us and them” but rather to recognize the differences and work together for the answer. These lessons will be invaluable going forward in the public history field, as it will serve as a guide to how to work with the public in a meaningful and connecting way.