When I entered the graduate program in history at NYU, my intention was to obtain the MA in Public History and go on to a career in museums. Before arriving at NYU, I had worked as an assistant curator at the National Building Museum, an education associate at the National Portrait Gallery, and as an intern at the National Museum of American History. My goal was to learn more about public history theory and methodology so that I would develop into a better public history practitioner.
I could not have picked a better program for achieving those goals. At the MA level, I enrolled in first-rate seminars in oral history theory and methods, media and history, and history and public policy, among many others. At the same time, I was introduced to cutting-edge work in cultural and intellectual history, social history, and the history of gender and sexuality. I also worked alongside a group of extraordinarily smart and innovative graduate students, professors, and museum curators who strove to broaden the reach of this new historical scholarship beyond the walls of the academy and, in the process, to transform the writing of academic history. These experiences led me to pursue the PhD with the intention of establishing a career that allowed me to move across—and, I hoped, to blur and trouble – the lines between academic and public history.
Graduate training at NYU allowed me to develop just such a career at the University of Minnesota. In addition to classes in political history, the history of gender and sexuality, and surveys of US history, I’ve regularly offered intensive undergraduate and graduate seminars in public history. These offerings have been directly influenced by the transformational curriculum at NYU, which rooted hands-on training in public history interpretation in a particular New York neighborhood and in collaboration with a public history institution. In my year, the neighborhood was the Lower East Side and the institution was the Lower East Side Tenement House Museum. At Minnesota, my students have worked collaboratively to create a range of exhibitions and multi-media projects that interpret the history of Twin Cities’ communities and neighborhoods. Students have often presented these projects to varied local audiences through exhibitions at institutions such as the Hennepin History Museum and through web-based projects. A good number of the students who’ve participated in these courses have gone on to graduate public history programs and to work in the public history field.
The conviction that historical interpretation can transcend conventionaldistinctions between the academy and the “public,” fostered at NYU, has influenced and enriched my career trajectory in other ways too. Soon after arriving at Minnesota, I collaborated with a group of graduate students and faculty in the formation of the Twin Cities GLBT Oral History Project. We were motivated by both an interest in conducting community-based historical scholarship as well as by a frustration with the dearth of oral historical sources on the history of sexuality in the Twin Cities metropolitan region. This collaboration led not only to the collection of scores of oral histories but to the publication of the book Queer Twin Cities (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
Currently, I am working on an exciting new public history collaborative pedagogical project, the Guantanamo Public Memory Project (GPMP). In fall 2012, with my colleague Dr. Jean O’Brien, I will teach an upper-level seminar that offers both an introduction to public history and an examination into the contentious history of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Students’ work will culminate in the production of two panels for an exhibition on Guantanamo history that will travel across the country after its launch at the Windows Gallery in NYU’s Kimmel Center in December 2013 as well as in work made accessible on the GPMP website. It is important to note here that GPMP is spearheaded by another NYU public history alumnus, Liz Sevcenko, and counts other graduates of the program among collaborators at participating universities across the country. Indeed, this project stands as a testament to NYU’s success in creating a collaborative ferment for innovative public history work that extends beyond preparation for individual careers.
Posted April 2012