By Elizabeth Correia
Between March 27 and 30, 956 public historians attended the 2019 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History in Hartford, Connecticut. They represented professionals, students, and scholars all interested in how public historians confront new challenges in their field and interpret difficult histories. Presenters provided examples of “repair work” being performed across the globe through historic preservation, museology, and tourism. Further discussions developed around workshops and working groups, while walking tours showcased the efforts of public historians in Connecticut to address contemporary issues in the state through historical interpretation.
Many sessions discussed the need to assist communities in telling their own histories. Pete Hodson, a postgraduate research student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, pointed out that sites like the Titanic Quarter in Belfast have multiple contexts. Public historians must be wary of writing certain communities out of their own history by focusing on only one of these contexts.
Hodson used the Harland & Wolff marine engineering company in the Titanic Quarter as an example. In the 20th century, the company shipyard was the site of dangerous conflict between Protestant and Catholic workers. However, this history has been overshadowed by the memorialization of Harland & Wolff’s most famous ship: the RMS Titanic. Workers and their families have also been displaced to make way for regeneration since 2005. There is hope that public history can prevent the gentrification of industrial neighborhoods by tying working-class populations to their communities.
Digital platforms have been used by public historians to help communities tell their own stories. Caroline Klibanoff of the MIT Museum presented on the Atlas of Southern Memory, a digital map that plots the location of public commemorations to the Confederacy, the civil rights movement, and national figures in the southern United States. Klibanoff is working on making the Atlas open to public participation, allowing anyone to add or annotate material. This creates a place where individuals in the South can debate how contentious pieces of their history are remembered. Digital history offers communities, no matter how small, the opportunity to be heard worldwide.
This year’s NCPH Annual Meeting also provided the opportunity to discuss how Connecticut can process difficult histories. The Coltsville National Historical Park in Hartford was a focal point of this discussion. It is the site of the Colt Armory and the neighborhood where Colt employees lived. It is also located in a city that has been greatly affected by gun violence.
At a public plenary, historians, Hartford community activists, and National Park Service representatives led the discussion on where Coltsville fits into Hartford’s complicated history. Panelists suggested that Coltsville host programs on healing the trauma of gun violence. However, the focus of the plenary was on dealing with crime and racism in the whole city. Coltsville should spark plans to bring hope to city residents, especially youth, and prevent them from turning to violence or crime. But, as one panelist, the Rev. Henry Brown, pointed out, all responsibility doesn’t have to be placed on Hartford; the entire state of Connecticut needs to be willing to support the youth of Hartford and all its cities. The creation of the Coltsville National Historical Park has started to bring people together in this repair work.
Other sessions and events discussed the oftentimes overlooked history of LGBTQ, Native American, African American, and immigrant communities. The conference also provided practical advice in site nomination, collections management, podcasting, digital media, oral history, and historical consulting. Altogether the 2019 Annual Meeting of NCPH defined what it means to be a public historian. Public historians put history to work for the public through a variety of mechanisms. They designate and interpret historic sites in ways that celebrate the lives of the people who existed there in the past and are there in the present. They encourage individuals and groups to share their unique stories with the world. They help communities come to grips with past trauma and move forward in a positive way.
Elizabeth Correia is a graduate student in the Public History program at Central Connecticut State University and Laboratory Specialist at Heritage Consultants, LLC. She is serving an internship at the Connecticut Trust this semester.