Amplifying Public History: Taking OAH Beyond the Annual Meeting

December 3, 2018

By Sam Opsahl, Stasia Tanzer, Jackie Swihart, Garrett Receveur 

Whenever we tell people we’re training to be public historians, it’s always followed by the dreaded question: “What’s that?” In response, we typically recite a version of: “It’s history outside of the classroom! Working in amazing places like museums, historic sites, archives, and more!” But fundamentally, we know that public history is more than a list of potential jobs. It’s the places, communities, and the peers that we collaborate with and the ways we all impact each other.

That’s why we were so excited when we were asked to be involved in a collaborative partnership between the National Council for Public History (NCPH), Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH). The OAH approached NCPH in spring 2017 to be a partner in their Mellon-funded OAH Amplified Initiative and NCPH further saw the partnership as a way to engage the IU School of Liberal Arts’ History Department (where NCPH is headquartered) and its flagship Public History MA Program. Drs. Rebecca Shrum and Jennifer Guiliano of IUPUI first approached Jackie Swihart and Sam Opsahl last winter. As part of our work, Swihart and Opsahl were asked to attend OAH’s 2018 Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California. There, we would get the opportunity to film interviews with panelists whose sessions we would be attending. Project supervisors Shrum, Guiliano, and Stephanie Rowe (NCPH Executive Director and History Department faculty member), preselected sessions from the OAH’s published conference Program based on themes and topics they felt were most relevant and critical to the field of public history. They were also responsible for generating most of the questions that would be asked during the interviews. Later that spring, our supervisors recruited Stasia Tanzer and Garrett Receveur to join the team.

We officially began working on the project as a full team in June of 2018. Starting out, we knew that we were to create online modules around those preselected sessions, with the intention of making the information accessible to those who did not attend the conference. OAH, NCPH, and IUPUI gave us students the freedom to get our creative juices flowing. It was exciting to know we were part of OAH’s inaugural exploration with the Amplified Initiative and its digital platform. We were eager to produce something that would be widespread and valuable to others, so we went to work.

We knew we had audio of the sessions and video recordings of the interviews, and we immediately wanted to make those more useable. The first thing we did was divide the sessions into groups based on common themes. These would become our individual “modules.” Each of us chose the module we were most interested in working with and were responsible for constructing throughout the summer. From there we began creating “finding aids” for the session audio and recorded interviews that made up our modules so listeners could more easily navigate these resources. During this process, we also pulled out the names of books, articles, and other sources that were mentioned by panelists and tracked them down. We then did our own outside research to identify other useful and relevant resources that would supplement the sources mentioned by panelists, pulling from sources we had been introduced to both in- and outside of our classes.

Finally, once we had a solid repository of information that we felt properly conveyed our modules’ topics or themes, we had the idea to develop a kind of lesson plan for each module. We used a similar model for each session within each module. In the “Career Paths for Public Historians” module, for instance, there is a session regarding exhibit development in California. Tanzer found several articles that dealt with the demolition of the Juana Briones house, a launching point for an exhibit at the California Historical Society, and the groups that tried to save it, and referenced articles and books dealing with the issue of shared authority, which we saw as a relevant topic in relation to the session.

We thoroughly enjoyed applying the skills learned throughout our coursework on a digital platform and revel in the group work that the public history setting provides. In the end we created three clean, distinct, and navigable modules that professors, teachers, and (public) historians alike may use in whatever capacity they deem fit in whole or in part. These lesson plans and discussion questions are merely suggestive. We hope that these resources are of value and interest to those who teach or work closely with the field of public history, and that you see them as in invitation to join the public history field.

Jackie Swihart is a second-year graduate student in the Public History Program at IUPUI. She was the project leader for the Amplified Initiative and worked on the module “Training Public Historians.” She currently interns at Indiana Humanities in Indianapolis.

Garrett Receveur is a second-year graduate student in the Public History Program at IUPUI. He worked on the module “Arming and Engaging Citizens” and currently interns at the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home in Indianapolis.

Sam Opsahl is a second-year graduate student in the Public History Program at IUPUI. He worked on the module “Career Paths for Public Historians” with Stasia Tanzer and is currently interning at the National Council on Public History office in Indianapolis.

Stasia Tanzer is a second-year graduate student in the Public History Program at IUPUI. She worked on the module “Career Paths for Public Historians” with Sam Opsahl. She currently interns in the curatorial department at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis.