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  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!


Useful Historical Websites I’ve Stumbled Upon

We are in such a wonderful time for only history resources.  I remember when poorly formatted websites and questionable sources were the norm.  Now most major universities, museums, and professional organizations have online portals filled to the brim with historical treasures.  Here is a quick list of a few I’ve stumbled upon.


The Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest:

What a great resource to begin a research project.  The online portal contains lists filled with links for digital collections, history organizations, museums, state/provincial histories, and special topics of interest.  Many hours can be spent wandering down the rabbit hole, linking from page to page.  A personal favorite of mine is the Asahel Curtis Photo Company Collection.  It contains over 1700 photographs of daily life, industry, and scenic views around the Pacific Northwest.


Civil War Pathways:

A product of producing an exhibit at the Washington State Historical Society Museum, the Civil War Pathways website creates new thoughts and possibilities.  The project (and exhibit) focus on information regarding the land and people in what is now Washington State relating to the American Civil War.  Lorraine McConaghy and a team of volunteers across Washington State combed through archives, libraries, and museums to create a scanned, searchable database of their findings.  I find the best way to work through the database is using the search box, entering appropriate topics and titles.  Entries include scanned images of documents, descriptions, bibliographic information and more.  Their work saves a lot of time and energy, and will be most useful to those looking at this underserved topic.


Public History Commons:

This project by the National Council on Public History is filled with reference information, blog posts, conversations and professional development leads.  The NCPH created the website in 2012 as a place for scholars and others with an interest in the interpretation and showing of history to the public to gather and share ideas.  It is regularly updated with professional development links, interesting articles, and a additions to their growing reference library.  It is a great place to find out about new projects, ideas, and connections.



A development of the American Antiquarian Society, this website provides free scholarly articles on a variety of subjects on American history before 1900.  The goal of the site is provide a less formal location for discussing a very wide portfolio of topics, from literature to politics to architecture to economics.  It seeks also to be more formal than a popular magazine.  Overall, it is an excellent website, filled with interesting articles that are not riddled with the usual history jargon that can put off the casual reader (or exhaust the more serious one).  It has the worthy goal of providing an online presence for a text focus time period that is getting left behind as more websites become multimedia focused.  Common-Place is updated October, January, April, and July.  I recommend it to anyone looking for a good read on early American life.


I hope my readers enjoy these few websites I have found over the last few months.  Please let me know if you have any suggestions.  My aspiration is that these sources of knowledge help to inspire engaging, interesting, and just cool historical work.






Civic Forums and Pulling Back the Curtain

Museums hold a place of trust and respect in communities.  The behavior of these communities confirms this trust.  Visitors give up family heirlooms willingly, with the expectation that those objects, and by extension, their own history, will be presented clearly and accurately.  Parents take their children to visit local museums and history sites, encouraging them to read up on what the institution is saying about their community.  School groups are taken to these institutions, out of town visitors brought over to see them, and engaged locals wander through from time to time to see what’s new.  Communities trust museums with their history, a trust that can foster new connections, discussions, and learning.

I feel this trust should be used to create discussion forums by utilizing the unique environment, information, and respect built up in museums.  History institutions already educate; by using their facilities to foster civic discussion, we can hopefully provide a calm space filled with information to provide for all sides of the story.  Starting with an education on historical research and curatorial tasks can help invigorate this unique communicative atmosphere.  By demonstrating to the interested public (amateur historians, local educators, general visitors, and anyone interested who has a desire to contribute or learn) the fluidity of history, I hope that museums can help prepare their extended local communities for meaningful civic discussion on contentious issues.

Obviously, there are problems right away with using museums as open forums.  No one wants to see museums ripped apart by partisan politics.  Special emphasis would have to be placed on presenting the museum as a meeting ground for talks, not as an endorsement machine.   Museums command a place of trust, balanced on the idea of objectivity.  An issue when discussing controversial topics is that objectivity comes into question.  Opening up the curatorial/historical process and teaching about its mechanisms would present the influences of staff, objects, research, and surviving materials on exhibits.  Showing that objectivity is never perfect would open up public history more to the public eye, demonstrate that museums have to work with interpreting sometimes conflicting topics, and serve as an example of how to be open for discussion. This work can help prepare the local community for seeing other sides of issues that had not been considered before.

Reinforcing open minded discussion can be done through curatorial education, since visitors may be asked to have preconceived notions challenged, or see local stories rewritten based on new evidence.  Many visitors may have an historical education the ended in high school, which focused on straight facts with little interpretation.  Many may have been taught with information that has since been revised with new research.  The reinterpretation of that originally taught information can help open doors to new thoughts of current events.  The flowing nature of history, subject to change based on new work, conclusions, and evidence is not well communicated to the public.  Educating visitors on this nature can help prepare them for discussions on current issues.


A second post in the near future will examine some current exhibits and thoughts on pulling back the curtain of curating, and any impact they may have on future civic talks in museums.


Exhibit Review: “Vikings” at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC


I recently had the pleasure of traveling to the lovely city of Victoria, British Columbia for a business trip.   There was fortunately time to visit a new traveling exhibit at its first stop (Royal BC Museum) on a tour across North America:  Vikings: Lives Beyond the Legends.

The exhibit is co-produced by the Swedish History Museum in Sweden and MuseumsPartner in Austria.  The exhibit space is wide and open, leaving plenty of room for visitors to wander and linger.  Seating is built into some exhibit case pieces, allowing for moments of respite while taking in the vast amount of information on hand.  The exhibit furniture is made up of clean, white, straight lined or curved containers and walls, obviously meant to be easy to pack up and ship.  However, the furniture does an effective job providing ample safe exhibit space for the objects, as well as good space for information text.  Objects are well supported and clearly labeled.

Labels featured information in the following format: Name of object, description, place it was found, and catalog number.  I found this to provide sufficient information, however, I would have liked to have read the estimated time period of the object.  Since most of the objects on display were inorganic, I know it would be difficult to place specific pieces of jewelry, tools, etc. in specific time frames.  I do feel however it would help those interested in continuing research to have a rough  starting date (i.e. 900-1000 AD) when observing a particular object.

The exhibit is divided up into theme areas, such as everyday life, religion, death practices, craftsmanship, and trade.  I am not an expert on Viking history or that of the Peoples belonging to Scandinavia.  This information was both detailed, and a summary for me.  I felt like a visitor could go through sections quickly and get the gist of the history being shown, but someone more curious could sit down and really take it in.  This was a success.  Being able to catch the public moving through quickly on their way to the next exhibit space, and satisfying those deeply interested in the subject is a challenge.  I walked away with some new thoughts on Vikings, and an appreciation for the cultures shown.

Sprinkled throughout the theme areas were interactive equipment.  One space featured a bench with localized speakers where a listener could hear mythological stories being told.  Another invited visitors via touch screen computer to help dress an everyday person from Viking times .  A quiz via touch screen at the end of the exhibit featured a single player mode and one to compete against a partner on what was learned during the visit.  There were also several plaques spaced around other exhibits in the Royal BC Museum that asked questions relating objects in other galleries to the Vikings exhibit.  This was a neat feature that I believe will get visitors interested in the Vikings exhibit even as they explore the rest of the facility.  These interactive spaces broke up the repetition of case and text that can make museums a drag for some visitors, and helped relate information in different, interesting ways.

In general I find that some interactive spaces are hardly ever used, or no funding exists to repair them if broken.  When that happens valuable space or money is absorbed or wasted.  Here, the interactive spaces were being used respectfully by visitors, who seemed to be enjoying the stories or seeing what clothing people may have worn in 1000 AD.  The equipment was in good repair, which speaks well for those watching over it day-to-day, and those transporting it to new stops for the duration of the trip.  Everything looked well maintained.  Interactive spaces, when used well, can help the mind change gears and provide a welcome respite from endless text.

Overall, I found Vikings:  Lives Beyond the Legends to be satisfying, engaging and rewarding.  Visitors were engrossed in looking at objects, reading, interacting, and talking about what they found.  My two criticisms would be the lack of dates on the objects and the gift shop.  I feel that even a rough time frame would help to place the objects in one’s mind.  The store at the end of the exhibit seemed a bit over the top, being filled with plastic swords, horned helmets and toys.  I understand many children might want a souvenir after hearing about Vikings, but it seemed to go against the message of humanizing their story.  I do understand that money from these does support the Royal BC Museum.  Yet, these are minor issues.  The charm of the storytelling of myths, the wonder of the objects (from swords to cookware), and the relaxing flow of information made for a delightful visit.  I greatly encourage you to visit this exhibit at the Royal BC Museum, or anywhere you may find it in the future.


My favorite takeaway from the exhibit:  That Norse peoples incorporated their old mythological religious symbols into their new Christian art as the faith spread.


Vikings:  Lives Beyond the Legends runs from May 16 to November 11, 2014 at the Royal BC Museum.






The Past and its Remembrance

The study of the past fascinates me.  Imagining the lives of those who came before; their struggles, hopes, failures and dreams is a constant source of wonder to my life.  The interpretation of those past events, those millions upon millions of lives is equally captivating.  Museums are my favorite place to reawaken those times gone past.  A book can bring a soul back to life.  A painting can at a stroke capture a long forgotten dance, or the energy of a terrific battle.  A simple set of cookware can capture the continuity of human life over centuries. Museums serve as the repositories of these talismans, and so much more.  These writings will cover museum work, the history topics connected to them, and the techniques/people/equipment/purposes at their heart.

My goal with this blog is to examine museum/history culture locally in the Pacific Northwest and nationally when possible.  Little known historical facts, new resources, exhibit reviews, and commentary are all possible topic avenues.  I hope this blog helps a forgotten moment to be found again.  I hope it helps a new exhibit to gain a few new visitors.  I hope it develops, even if by the smallest margin, the rich culture and universe of public history.

The Past burns bright; let our eyes be set on its wisdom.