Today I attended an event at Paley Library that featured public historians Michael Frisch, Cindy Little and Erin Bernard. Much of the conversation centered around community centered projects and oral History. I was particularly excited about this event because I have been followed Erin Bernard's Philadelphia Public History Truck since it was first publicized. Additionally, last year she worked with the community organization Tree House Books, which I volunteered for 3 years in undergrad.
While each of these historians had interesting and important things to say, Erin Bernard's presentation about her work with the Public History Truck really emphasized the importance of integrating oneself into the community they are working with. She spoke of volunteering, attending neighborhood meetings, canvassing neighborhoods, and working with community organizations in service of her project. This seemed to fight against a lot of common adages of objectivity and creating emotional distance from one's research area so this element of her project seemed incredibly innovative and seemed much more linked to community activism than many public history jobs.
Bernard also spoke about the important relationship art and artists have had to her public history project. My managing history class discussed the role of art in public history at length after reading about Fred Wilson. Bernard did not just use art in her exhibit space but was involved with artists at length throughout her project and presented it in an artist collective. This also reminded me of something I have mentioned here before, Temple Contemporary's Funeral for a Home project. While created by artists and deeply involved with Temple Contemporary, public historians were directly involved and it was certainly a public history project. Because so many artists are engaged in activism and historical work, I don't think its enough for public historians to simply feature a painting or another piece of artwork in their exhibit. I think collaboration and engagement with the art world can only help both artists and public historians.
However, this ideal of collaborating with the community at a deep level and with artists is a more difficult type of public history. It requires interpreting in a medium that can engage in artistic work and it also means have the time and resources to devote to developing these relationships. I have been thinking about this could be applied to my walking tour of the Philadelphia Jewish Quarter and it is much more difficult. Engaging a community in history is more difficult when that community no longer exists. Because the Jewish Quarter has a community hasn't existed for many years, an in depth community engagement would not be impossible but more logistically challenging than when one is doing more recent history.
I think both artistic and community engagement are incredibly important for public history but thinking about them in terms of my own work has made the inherent difficulty clear.