American Historical Association (AHA) 2016

Guest author: Rebecca Pattillo
MLS and MA in Public History Dual Degree Student, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

The 130th annual meeting of the American Historical Association was held January 7-10 in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. I was excited to attend my first large scale professional conference and even more excited that it was being held in my original home state of Georgia (having been an Indianapolis resident since 2003). This year’s conference theme was “Global Migrations: Empire, Nations, and Neighbors,” with the bulk of the sessions reflecting the theme. Throughout the four day conference, I attended multiple paper presentations, round table discussions, and receptions, which I will highlight in this post. AHA encouraged live tweeting of sessions, which can be searched using #aha16 and the session number (example #s21).

Dominated by academic historians and PhD graduate students, I knew I would be in the minority as a dual degree master’s student in Public History and Library Sciences. I was on a mission to seek out other public historians and archivists. I made sure to wear my archival humor buttons in the hope that it would attract the elusive archivist. It became apparent that out of the 1500 attendees there were not many of us, which made me question why professions that are intricately connected do not have more crossover at these large meetings.

I began the conference by attending a session entitled “Fugitive Objects: Material Culture and Historical Methods” (#s21) where four papers were presented. These papers examined unconventional archival materials, such as fragments of the Berlin Wall and Ku Klux Klan regalia, and discussed how the meaning and interpretation of these objects shifts throughout time. Dr. Paul Farber’s (@paul_farber) paper entitled “Piecing History: The Strange Archival Afterlife of the Berlin Wall in American Culture” looked at how fragments of the Berlin Wall became a cultural commodity. What was especially fascinating was his examination of archival records of Berlin Wall fragments. Rather than focusing on the fragment’s historical context, Farber found that examining the metadata and acquisition records of these fragments gave insight into archival collecting practices and decisions, through which he framed his analysis of the commodification of the historical relic. Dr. Katharine Lennard (@KatieLe_nerd) gave an equally impressive talk regarding KKK regalia and challenges the myth that KKK regalia was of a homemade nature, when in fact they were produced in factories on a mass scale. She focused on the women workers within these factories, pointing out that not all aligned with KKK ideology. In fact, one image she shared shows an African American woman working in the background.

The second panel I attended was “Digital Historical and Cultural Collections and Exhibits: Ethics, Creation, Dissemination, and Funding” (#s54). The first two talks primarily discussed the creation of and final output of their respective digital projects but did not touch upon funding or go into depth regarding the tools used. The talk which garnered the most discussion was from the Director of Public Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Dr. Sharon Leon (@sleonchnm), entitled “Building Dialogic Collections: An Approach to Doing Digital Public History.” Rather than focus on one particular digital project, Dr. Leon proclaimed that a majority of historians are simply putting manuscripts online in a digital format, rather than building interactive, engaging collections. Using J.K. Tchen’s theory of a dialogic museum, which encourages engagement with audiences in a collaborative way, Leon gave an impassioned talk urging historians to cultivate digital projects with more public involvement. She gave examples of several successful projects that serve as examples such as Preserve the Baltimore Uprising and the Bracero History Archive. During the Q&A I commented that there does not appear to be much cross-over with archivists and historians at conferences, especially on panels regarding digital collections. I asked how could we continue to encourage cross pollination between these two fields. Leon responded that she believes public history is bridging the gap between the two professions and feels that cross-pollination between the two professions would create better projects. She mentioned the Digital Library Federation’s Cross-Pollinator grants as an example of ways conferences could encourage this.

The evening included attending two receptions, one for graduate students and one for twitterstorians and bloggers. Both were great networking opportunities, although I got a bit “star struck” when Slate’s Rebecca Onion (@rebeccaonion) and Library of Congress’ Jason Steinhauer (@jasonsteinhauer) joined the room. It was exciting to see so many people from twitter whom I have interacted with or followed online. The evening ended with the “Plenary: The Confederacy, Its Symbols, and the Politics of Public Culture” featuring David Blight, Daina Ramey Berry, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Jane Turner Censer, and John Coski. The plenary was open to the public, however, judging from audience Q&A, it appeared to be mostly academic historians present. Daina Ramey Berry, of the University of Texas at Austin, spoke for the first time publicly regarding the controversy and relocation of Confederate monuments on her campus.  She reminded the audience that as historians, we have a duty to enter into the public debate regarding confederate symbols and memorials. An overarching sentiment was for better engagement with the public, giving more context for these monuments and facilitating informed decision making regarding their removal, relocation or additional interpretation were they to remain in place. For a more thorough overview of the plenary, see Colleen Flaherty’s report on Inside Higher Ed.

The second day of the conference I attended “Disorderly City: Race, Gender, and Social Transformation in Civil War-Era New Orleans” (#s75) where two papers focused on ways in which the political and social environment of New Orleans affected the lives of women of various racial backgrounds. Friday was also the night of the Public Historian’s Reception which was a perfect chance to meet others in the field. I made many new contacts, including an archivist who lives in Indianapolis (finally, I found one)!

Saturday brought my favorite panel of the conference, “Podcasting History: A Roundtable Discussion” (#s161). Panelists included creators of  BackStory, The Urban Historians, and Who Makes Cents? podcasts. They began by giving a brief overview of their podcasts and how they came to fruition. This was followed by an open Q&A which resulted in a spirited conversation about the nuances of creating engaging podcasts. Brian Balogh (@historyfellow) of BackStory stated that out of the top ten history podcasts only one (his own) has trained historians. An interesting conversation took place via Twitter following this remark, because several members of the audience belonged to the group of “non-historians” who are creating successful podcasts. While some felt this was denigrating non-historians, I saw it in a much different way. It speaks to the fact that historians, especially those working in public history, have to learn how to tell better stories. Many are so bogged down by traditional methodology, that they have forgotten how to become entertaining storytellers.

The final conference session I attended was “The Future of the African American Past” (#s218) that discussed the soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH) in Washington D.C. Rex Ellis, Associate Director of the NMAAHC, stated that the museum will not simply be the African American story, rather it’s the story of the American experience seen through the lens of African American history, culture, and arts. The museum seeks to give visitors a transformative experience, not just through historical exhibits, but through educational outreach and diverse programming that will reach a variety of audiences.

Saturday was also the day of the conference’s Career Fair, which was unlike a traditional career fair. Rather than having individual employers set up, it invited leaders from a variety of fields including government agencies, nonprofits, academia, and private consulting firms. These individuals served as mentors to job candidates and graduate students. It was here that I had an informative conversation with Jessie Kratz of the National Archives regarding archival education and internships. I lamented that my formal library school education was not offering any hands-on experience with archival software or EAD. She informed me that practical experience in archives will outweigh any lack of knowledge regarding the technical aspects, and that much of it is learned on the job. Thankfully, my public history master’s program at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI) has given me the opportunity to intern at two excellent local repositories, the Indianapolis Museum of Art Archives and the Indiana Historical Society.

While the AHA caters to academic historians, I found the professional development benefits of the conference made the trip worthwhile. For anyone planning to attend in the future, I highly recommend going to multiple receptions for networking and great discussion. Following the conference, it became clear that historians and archivists are tackling similar challenges: How can we engage the public in more meaningful ways and better connect with our users? How can we advocate for the profession and, better yet, how can WE make ourselves valuable to the public?

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