When the secretary of my institute asked me to write something for its April newsletter, I realized that I hadn’t properly blogged about my NCPH experience yet. In short: it was really great.
Long and nuanced: I realize that for me – at heart a student of literature and culture, rather than history – the conference of the National Council for Public History was in some ways not the most natural environment. But actually it was! There are two main reasons for that. The first is that many (or indeed all?) of the objects I study to glean how FDR is represented in American cultural memory – museums, memorials, biographies, novels, films and documentaries – are products or sites of public history, defined broadly. So really what I do is try to understand the workings of these sites and artefacts as public history. How do they represent FDR, and how have they acquired their position in doing so? If you take the radically inclusive definition of public history as “history-making in the public realm”, then studying that process is precisely what I do.
Secondly, why I thought the conference was very good and helpful for me, was because it was attended by a very diverse range of participants. Diversity can easily seem like a buzzword invoked for political correctness and funding applications, rather than something that is really actually enriching, but here it was just that. Conference participants came from the field (i.e. working in museums, archives, the National Park Service etc.) and from academia, from all ages and ranks. As a result, everybody had to be explicit about their relationship with public history, and that made it both easy to understand this broad field as a whole, and made me feel not like an outlier. Of other conferences I might have said that their level of specialization was their primary advantage, but – also because my research is so highly interdisciplinary – I rarely get the sense that what I do fits in perfectly with conferences that are organized on a more narrowly defined disciplinary basis.
That did, to be fair, also cost something in terms of content. I felt that many of the panels I attended were very good for making contacts, and hearing about great and intriguing practices, but rarely presented really new research or arguments (although some did, particularly Jon Berndt Olsen on my own panel!). And the conference’s tweet that it sported over 600 participants from 45 states and 10 countries made me snigger. 600 participants from 10 countries isn’t very diverse at all from a European perspective. And I very much think that a more international outlook on public history would contribute to our understanding of how people(s) deal with their various pasts.
To end on a positive note: I know I have spent considerable time fretting over the matter of “bringing a baby to a conference”, and that aspect of it did go extremely well, thanks in part to the general good-natured and accepting atmosphere in Monterey. And thanks to the town’s best babysitter, personal assistant and chauffeur Desirée, but that is a different story entirely.
Interested in reading what I wrote for the LUCAS Newsletter (Dutch)? http://www.hum.leidenuniv.nl/lucas/agenda/sara-polak-conferentie-montery.html?utm_source=nb-lucas-april&utm_medium=e-mail&utm_content=sara-polak-conferentie-montery&utm_campaign=nieuwsbrief