Reflections: Between Academic and Public Histories

6 May

by Christina Carlson-

As I reflect on this course on public history, I find that a few main ideas and thoughts stick out from the many things we learned throughout the semester. One of the themes I am continually brought back to is the sometimes conflicting relationship between public and academic history.

Maybe I am most struck by this discussion as my studies at SIUE have continuously revolved around these two sides of the historical discipline. As an MA student in Historical Studies, as well as a student in the Museum Studies program, I have often noticed places where academic and public history seem mutually exclusive. One example would be in a museum collections management class I took, where the attention of the registrar and conservator was given fully to the condition and physical description of the object, with little thought as to the object’s historical significance or the story behind it. At the same time, in my academically focused history classes, objects themselves were not considered at all.

Within this class we have run up against many places where the need to draw in the public has been at odds with a history more focused on raising broader and more difficult historical questions. As we discussed the work we were doing with our community partner, we immediately realized the limitations of our group projects. Even as we recognized both positive and negative aspects to the issues of immigration, race, Americanization, and labor in the small, multi-ethnic community of Lincoln Place, we also realized restrictions in telling these stories in more complex ways. We were forced to ask ourselves how we could appropriately and truthfully represent Lincoln Place in a way that would be beneficial to the community, while also representing a thorough historical account of the neighborhood.

As we toured local historical sites and met with professionals in the field, we witnessed this conflict between academic and public history as well. At the Holocaust Museum, for example, we recognized how difficult it can be to tell all of the relevant pieces of an event such as the Holocaust of World War II, especially in a space as small as that museum.

I am also acutely aware of the relationship between academic and public history as my future career will likely continue to fall somewhere between these two worlds. Even now, I am working on a project for the Saint Louis Science Center about the history of organ transplants. As I complete this small project, I must continually keep in mind how I can engage visitors while telling a story that isn’t just about scientific triumph, but also about many failed transplants and unsuccessful experiments. It may be a different situation than the one in Lincoln Place or the Holocaust Museum, but I think the essential idea remains the same.

Finding a balance between these two worlds sometimes seems difficult, and yet I think this balance is worth striving toward. After thinking through and discussing these ideas repeatedly during this class, I believe both the academic and public sides of history can benefit greatly from the perspective the other side provides.


Reflections: Walking in the Footsteps of the Forgotten Element

6 May

by Melissa Burns-

At some point during my academic career, I became intrigued by prostitutes. The idea of the “oldest profession” being hidden and denied while at the same time acknowledged and tolerated fascinated me. I was truly inspired by the work of Timothy Gilfolye. His book, City of Eros, tracks the history of prostitution in New York City from the eighteenth century to the 1990s. The amount of work that he put into his book astounds me, especially in regard to the maps that he created to indicate where prostitution was located in Manhattan. I can just picture him toiling away in a dusty archive, making notes about each recorded brothel and arrest in order to create his collection of very detailed maps. My own research focuses on prostitution in St. Louis, and there is very little in terms of existing maps or detailed information about where prostitutes plied their trade in the city. Therefore, I would love to be able to put together something similar to what Gilfolye accomplished.

My original idea was to just take Gilfolye’s idea and recreate it for St. Louis by making traditional, static maps. However, after we discussed the pros and cons of online history in class I changed my mind. One of the websites that we looked at was the Spatial History Project at Stanford University. This group of professors, scholars, and students is working to create an online, interactive map of the history of prostitution in Philadelphia. Their maps are similar to the ones that Gilfoyle made, but because they are digital they can be easily manipulated and are more user-friendly.

I also found myself inspired by the walking tour that some of my fellow classmates created for the Lincoln Place Heritage Group. I love the idea of putting something together that can be accessed and followed by simply using your smartphone. So, as I have been introduced to new ideas of public history, I have modified my plan. What I would like to do is put my research to use and make a walking tour of downtown St. Louis. However, instead of highlighting buildings of historic architecture or modern points of interest, I would like to walk the same streets as former streetwalkers and working girls. And, because they so often go hand-in-hand, I would also like to include places associated with gangsterism in the city, like gambling houses and speakeasies.

All too often, St. Louis’s history is discussed in economic terms, either as a hub of commerce in the nineteenth century or as a Rust Belt city of the twentieth.  Very few people actually stop to think about those who actually lived and worked here. As a result, there is a huge amount of buried history in this city. For example, St. Louis is known for its Anheuser Busch brewery, but what happened to its production during Prohibition? In a city used to having ample liquor around surely it did not just go away. But where, then, did it go during those years, and who engaged in it?  There are also few who realize that prostitution was legalized in St. Louis in the late nineteenth century.  Where did these women live and work, and what happened to the profession after it was criminalized again?  These are the questions that I find captivating, and I would love to be able to bring the world of these forgotten people back to life.

Preservation and the Joliet Arsenal

6 May

by Regina Mangun-

Throughout this class, the topic of preserving historical landmarks has been a recurring theme. I have been on the fence trying to decide if I agree with preservation or if I believe it holds a community back. I certainly do not want to demolish areas and let their historical significance be lost, but I can see the dilemma in trying to preserve every little piece of history. With the preservation of historical landmarks, will there be room for ‘new’ historical areas? I have gone back and forth trying to figure out what I believe would be best, and then I learned about the Joliet Arsenal and the renovations it is undergoing.

The Arsenal was used during World War II and later wars for the manufacturing of weapons for the war effort. Many Illinois residents in that area were employed by the Arsenal, which created an economic boost for that region. The Arsenal was located in a prime area for easy access to transportation, which was beneficial for the distribution of weapons. Now, the land is being used for industrial purposes. Manufacturing and trucking companies are being built to create more jobs and another economic boost for the area.

I realized this news saddened me because I believe the Joliet Arsenal should have been preserved. It played an important role for the United States during World War II, and it especially had great historical meaning to the local communities. To see that land turned into an industrial park seems like a waste. I find it funny that when I do not agree with what will be done to a historical area I am pro preservation. However, when the plans for a new building spark my interest, I am suddenly torn about what should be done and what is right. I can definitely understand why historical preservation can be a controversial topic and how every circumstance is unique.

Endangered History?

6 May

by Katie Gieselman-

In the past few decades, America’s schools have seen a drastic shift in the subjects that are considered important. Art, music, and physical education have been cut from most schools. Now with the school’s success depending on standardized state tests such as the ISAT, I’m concerned that history itself, along with science, will fall to the wayside. The main focus on these standardized tests are math and language arts, so naturally teachers are focusing on these main subjects. The scary reality is that some students are only being taught history as little as twice a week, sometimes only once.

With a decrease in the emphasis on history, it’s a growing concern of mine that children–who are our future–will lack an appreciation for history and all it offers. What does this have to do with preserving history? If the future generations don’t have an appreciation for history, how can we ensure that historical buildings and history as a field will be protected? This is why the preservation of history is so important. Teachers need to work hard to show how fun history can be and changes need to be made statewide so that an emphasis on history is returned to the classroom. More field trips need to be taken and history needs to be viewed as a fun subject that can be hands on. Without this movement I truly fear the future and the evolution of history.

Reflections: Digitizing Public History

6 May

by Becky Johnston-

Technology is playing an increasingly large part in the study of history. The Internet has allowed instant access to information through websites on historical events, figures, records, and old and rare books. The time it takes to research has been drastically cut because of this access. Technology and public history now seem like a natural fit. The Internet and mobile applications have placed history at the public’s fingertips. Digitization of physical documents and artifacts allow everything to be seen by anyone with Internet access.

Virtual museums are a digital innovation for the presentation of public history. They allow people hundreds of miles away to see a collection or exhibit that they otherwise would not have been able to visit.  These may be the digital version of physical exhibits, or exhibits purely in the virtual world.  Working with Omeka (a medium for digital and virtual museums) gave the practicum students the opportunity to access all objects used in CUSP exhibits over four years, though the physical objects were no longer in our possession. We created exhibits based on themes that we saw, not ones pre-described by the original exhibits. Other museums could digitize their entire collections–including items hidden away in storage. Visitors to the museum’s website could browse through them based on predefined collections or, by way of a tagging system, could create their own exhibits using filters like Ancient Egypt or Pre-Columbian.

I would like to envision that one day all the museums and collections everywhere would contribute to the digitization of public history by donating digital photos of their objects to an Internet-based collection. Here, anyone could research, compare, organize, and exhibit a consortium of artifacts, paintings, documents, or anything else deemed of historical significance. A free, public “World Museum,” would be a gift to not only the academic community, but to the people. What wonderful exhibits could be formed from joining relics from collections in countries separated by hundreds of mile and political interest, that otherwise would never be able to be united.

Another form of the digitization of public history are mobile applications. This is an emerging union between history and technology, which gives users the ability to visit historical sites with a personal tour guide. Images, videos, and sound could all be activated based on location. As I’ve discussed before, the most up-to-date information could be relayed to the user.  Besides the project Tom and I are working on this summer, I have thought about how I could interlace this with my research in Native American Studies.

People today do not have the concept of how many mounds there actually were in the area. The vast number of mounds in the St. Louis area lent to its former nickname of Mound City. Incorporating GIS mapping technology with the GPS in a mobile device would allow researchers to walk to areas with integral information at hand, to see the layout with their own eyes, and gain a better perspective of what they are studying.  A tool such as this, combined with the research at Cahokia Mounds, could inspire new theories about why the mounds were laid out in a certain position. Mounds would not have been random constructions, but were placed with purpose. They defined a landscape and, therefore, how the landscape was used and walked upon. It has been theorized that they directed paths and a guided tour–including locations of bygone mounds- might help to visualize this function.

If you can’t tell, I find this merging of two disciplines absolutely fascinating. I am looking forward to this summer’s project and trying to incorporate these ideas into my future research. I do not find this turn to the virtual pulling away from the physical. Those who seek to see things for themselves and not through the lens of a camera and screen of some device will still visit museums. The experience of being inches away from history cannot be recreated. But the poor middle school that has lost funding will now be able to take that trip to a museum that would not have been possible otherwise. This cutting-edge field of study will undoubtedly lead to new theories and discoveries because it allows for correlations that could not have been made if the past had not been brought into the digital world.

Reflections: The Future of Public Building Preservation

6 May

by Tom Thompson-

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of final course reflections from graduate students.

During the semester we met numerous people who are passionate about history and present it to the public in many different ways.  That passion rubs off on us as students and makes us want to continue their legacy of preservation.  However, I am concerned whether major historic preservation projects, of the type we learned about, will be completed in the future.

When I look at the old YMCA in Belleville as a public historian I see the architecture and the role the building played in improving lives of city residents.  But as a taxpayer and realist I just see a stalemate.  The building is too expensive to repair and the city does not have the money to tear it down.  So it continues to be exposed to the elements and become harder to restore.  Even if the economic environment improves, will the funding come forward to rebuild such a large building?

We’ve seen that cities like Lowell, Mass., have been able to use their historical past to lead preservation efforts for the city as a whole.  But Lowell’s experience was driven by a few people with vision, federal funding, and the continuing support of the National Park Service. What is to happen to our local cities with much smaller populations and no driving force for change?  I am normally a positive person but I have to say that I am not optimistic about the future of these large-scale projects.

The fiscal future points to reduced federal funding across the board and likely further reduction in the arts and state historical projects. Certainly in the short run it appears that the State of Illinois will have to fund people and infrastructure projects at the expense of the arts. What will happen to the smaller cities that want to preserve their inner core like Belleville and Granite City? Even a large project like Old North St. Louis has huge financial challenges. How will they find the funding to preserve significant buildings or historic areas?

Many cities we have learned about are considering converting these areas to an “arts” center. We’ve heard this in Belleville and Granite City. Other mid-size American cities like Reading, PA are going this route to save their inner core and reduce flight of younger residents from the city.  Reading has a head start with the drive of millionaire Albert Boscov, but what are the rest of us to do?  Can the arts attract enough businesses to save all of these cities?  Again I am skeptical.

So, rather than a call to action, I just want to point out to my fellow public historians that we are in an era where we may have to pick our small battles rather than win the whole war. So, in Belleville, the Historical Society is preserving a small old saloon while keeping an eye on the larger YMCA.  A manageable project with, perhaps, a manageable budget.  The way of the future.

The Top Three Places for Children to Explore History in St. Louis

5 May

by Katie Gieselman-

Upon entering my final year in the elementary education program, I recently received news of where I would be student teaching for an entire year. I was pleased to hear that I would be placed in a 5th grade history and language arts classroom. This school is considered urban and they don’t have the resources that most schools have. I instantly knew that I wanted to give these students an opportunity to experience history in a fun way. I began thinking about field trip ideas to historical locations/museums that wouldn’t cost the school a ton of money. Living so close to St. Louis it would be silly not to take advantage of the resources available. Listed below are the top 3 places I found in St. Louis to keep the world of history alive and exciting in a 5th graders mind. (Note: All of these places could easily be adapted for older and younger students.)

1)  Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in St. Louis

This beautiful museum tells the story of many Jews in the St. Louis area who experienced the Holocaust. This museum is completely free and, upon request, a Holocaust survivor can tell their story to your students. The great thing about this museum is that they understand the importance of a good tour guide. They have tour guides who are specifically used to tell the story to younger students in an appropriate way that they can understand. They are even able to show students how something like the Holocaust can be similar to the hate in America today against certain ethnic groups.

2)  The Museum of Westward Expansion, under the arch in St. Louis

Students will be more than excited to travel here and learn about history! Not only will they get to travel up in the Arch (for a fee) but they will also get to explore the westward expansion and what that meant for St. Louis. The exhibits are fun and eye catching and are sure to keep the students talking long after the field trip is over. The best part… It’s FREE!

3)  Saint Louis Science Center

Many may be asking how the Science Center can be considered a place for students to learn about history. It is one of those great places that can incorporate science and history (Hello, two field trips in one!) that allow students to make the connection of how the two subjects are related. The Science Center is completely free unless you want your students to experience one of the many exhibits that visit the center each year which normally charge for a ticket.

Shared History of the Imagination: The Cathartic Process of Evading the Historical Expert

5 May

by Jeremy Manczuk-

Sylvan Springs Park (located in South St. Louis County) sits in stark historical contrast to its neighbor, Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.  Situated on 331 acres alongside the Mississippi River, Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery is home to nearly 200,000 soldier’s graves and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.  The seemingly endless rows of unadorned, white tombstones are a vivid reminder of the attraction military service holds in the mind of the American public and, in some cases, of the price that attraction can carry.  Jefferson Barracks County Park (the other neighbor of Sylvan Springs and the National Cemetery) was home to the Jefferson Barracks Military Post which was decommissioned in 1946 after 120 years of military presence.  This park is now the residence of several museums – in fact, the Missouri Civil War Museum is scheduled to open there this summer.  Historical recollection, celebration, and interpretation abound!

Sylvan Springs

Poor Sylvan Springs, unfortunately, cannot compete.  Historically speaking, all Sylvan Springs can claim – in the manner of tangible historical artifact – is an old, but well-kept picnic area built around a spring and a sign posted to inform passers-by of its origins.  There are no historical intermediaries to assist the public with conclusions; there are no sweeping generalizations; there is no thesis.  Built by the Missouri 6th Infantry in 1939, in conjunction with the Civilian Conservation Corps, the beverage garden offered only relief from a world destined – as all worlds, I imagine, are so fated –  to change forever.  It is this relief that I daydream about whenever I happen to be in this spot. Though the world was just beginning to become visibly entangled in a horrific war that would alter the lives of so many these young soldiers, they and their guests sought brief solace by this spring in the form of barbeques and nighttime dances.

Sylvan Spring Signs

All of this conjecture is, of course, solely a product of my imagination. I do not know what became of the 6th Infantry as a whole or of the individuals who comprised it.  If I were a better, more diligent historian I imagine I could find out. In the interest of avoiding boredom, I think I will not. For the purpose of this blog posting, however, it does not really matter. Dreams and imagination are constant presences in the construction of human history. When we allow own dreams and imaginations to interact with those of the past…well, I believe that is the point at which limitations evaporate and history becomes incredibly interesting. My point is–and though I feel I am in danger of being labeled an addle-brained, new- age, phony-baloney I will persist–that we interact with history much more than we think we do.  Historians (public or otherwise) generally offer the public a beneficial source of historical information and interpretation. That same public, however, may be best served, at times, left to their own devices.

SIUE’s Louis Sullivan Exhibit

4 May

by Gemma Tennyson-

Some of the best things in life are always kept secret. That is how I feel about the Louis Sullivan exhibit tucked away on the second floor of the Lovejoy Library here on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. After viewing a small Sullivan exhibit in St. Louis that only included pictures, I realized that SIUE really has a hidden treasure. It houses one of the largest Sullivan ornamental architecture collections.

After being an undergraduate student for three years and using the library quite a bit I would think that I would have noticed the Sullivan exhibit, but it took a class assignment my first year in the museum studies graduate program to even know about the exhibit. This seems kind of odd that the university never had any advertising beyond a small sign on the first floor of Lovejoy Library. Why is this exhibit not advertised?

Last year the man who designed the exhibit came to a class that I was in to talk about the exhibit and answer questions. He explained all the work he put into the exhibit both researching and designing the text panels. He also told us of the expensive cost of putting up all the different ornaments as well as the text panels. All the time, effort, and money spent means little when there is no audience.

As someone wanting to be in the field of public history I find this quite troublesome. I think that the university should work on advertising for the exhibit. I know that is probably easier said than done, but it couldn’t hurt for professors to promote it during relevant classes or use it for an assignment. I also believe that there could be more public advertising off campus. The university could probably benefit from outside visitors coming to campus. Why keep such a unique collection for no one to know about?

Local Historical Preservation

4 May

by Gemma Tennyson-

Living in Edwardsville for the last four years has really made me realize the effort put in by the communities to preserve historic buildings. In the last four years in Edwardsville I have learned about the historic Benjamin Stephenson House, the historic residential area of LeClaire, and much more about the city’s history starting in the early 1800s. All of these places have been under revitalization in the last decade.

I know there is much more being done in Edwardsville than I can keep track of, but over the last ten to fifteen years there have been many changes. Eleven years ago, the city of Edwardsville was able to buy the historic Benjamin Stephenson house after it had been a fraternity house since 1982. Even before that, many others had owned and changed the historic building. They were able to historically restore it from the archival material from Madison County. The building that houses the Madison County Historical Society and Archives is a historic building that continues to be preserved for use of the space. The first trading post in Madison County still has a standing wall inside old Rusty’s Restaurant and Bar. The latest example is of the Wildey Theater re-opening for the public fully restored to former glory.  All of these places are being preserved, but some more actively than others.

I grew up in a more rural area that did not make much of an effort to preserve anything historic or really inform residents about the town’s history. Edwardsville was quite a refreshing change for me. I see much more of an effort to preserve and educate. Some communities are more diligent about keeping their history preserved as well as physical structures.

A while back I began to think what could make this area strive for preservation while other communities don’t. One of the main issues I believe is funding. Smaller communities don’t have as much money, but there is a small amount of grant money for smaller local historical preservation. I know that it can’t be easy to find funding for preservation. Many communities are trying to find money but are unable or stop trying. I think there can always be a starting point. My hometown can’t seem to find the money to help preserve their history, but they have a fundraiser to send the local cheerleaders to camp. Even a small fundraiser can give local historical societies a start.

I think many communities don’t believe that doing historical preservation is a worthy cause, or that they will have the support. Local history can not only help bring money to communities but also help bring communities together. I think that more communities urban or rural can benefit from preserving their history. There just needs to be a small group or historical society that is willing to work for it.