Building Trust to Build History

My recent visit to the annual National Council on Public History conference was fruitful and though provoking.  My main takeaway is the importance of trust in historical work.  Trust is the foundation the whole historical enterprise is built on.

Asking a person for documents or objects to accession into institutional holdings is a serious request.  An old photo album or a collection of love letters, these are the physical archives of entire human lives.  When historians, archivists, or curators and contact local holders of valuable information, prior relationships must be considered.  Marginalized persons, ignored groups, people whose materials may have been rejected before will not be ready to discuss accession.  They do not need strangers coming to their home to, in their view, dispossess them of familial identity and history.

Many of our institutions are working hard to increase ownership and inclusiveness with their neighbors.  Still, these organizations exist in a reality created by their predecessors’ behavior.  Objects turned away from accession, lack of invitations from museum staff for participation, and disinterest in the perspectives of the minority were all sharp blows.  This is history in action, at the micro level.  Museums must develop long-term plans to begin to construct a foundation that welcomes the lost participants from years gone by.

One suggestion discussed at the conference is engaging in low pressure, relationship building meetings.  Walk the community, and introduce yourself to neighbors.  Bring by some fresh bread or cookies and have a friendly get-together.  In no way say “you are here to help.”  That person has managed a memory of their family without your assistance up until now, don’t insinuate they need assistance.  Just talk, look, and you may be surprised what resources you will find.  Even just knowing what materials are kept where can be a hug boon to local research.  They key it to be open-minded, patient, and diligent in communicating long-term.

This is going to be a long process.  Decades (and even centuries) of neglect must be repaired to bring discussions and communal work to the level it deserves in underserved communities.  By building trust, we can improve the history field, the museum education system, and our homes.

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Nashville Bound!

Even in this connected age, face to face meetings are important to connect, share, and develop new ideas.  I have the pleasure to be attending the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Nashville, TN starting tomorrow.  Making the time, and setting aside the money for these events is critical for two reasons:  exposure to new concepts, and exposure to new people.

It can be expensive, time-consuming, and honestly a bit frightening to journey to these events.  For a budget minded graduate student or new professional;  plane tickets, hotel reservations, conference fees and plentiful seminars can be overwhelming to set up.  Huge crows of peers can be difficult to navigate.  Here are a few tips to make the process less crushing:

1.  Apply for scholarships:  Most conferences have a program to help with costs for attending a conference, often covering conference fees and providing a grant to help with air and hotel.  Usually an essay and letters of recommendation are required.  Give it a shot!

2.  Plan Early:  Get the process started as soon as possible.  Apply for time off of work, make travel arrangements, and study what events you want to visit at the conference.  Take the pressure off the planning, and save money by grabbing plane seats, hotel rooms, and car rentals before the rush.  Having time to review the schedule of events also means you are less likely to miss out on an interesting presentation.

3.  Get the most of the experience:  Chances are, the trip is costing some decent cash to undertake.  Make the most of your dollars.  Look into mentor programs for first time attendees.  These programs partner new attendees with veteran attendees to give advice on making the most of conference resources.  The number of mentors is usually limited; check into this early.  Print some business cards inexpensively off of a website like vistaprint.com.  Having a quick way to provide contact information is professional, makes a good impression, and helps you get connected.  They can also be a cool expression of yourself!  Lastly, spend the extra money for worthwhile programs.  An excellent tour of a historic site in your field of interest, or a fancy meal that can lead to professional contacts are well spent dollars.

I’m sure I will have many more ideas after the conference, but I hope these help for now.  See you in Nashville!

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