October 28th, 2016 was the first-ever CUNY Public History Collective Conference, organized by the graduate students there. I felt honored to be invited to present, considering I was the only literary scholar in attendance. But, as you may have noticed, my work frequently crosses over from literature and history and vice versa.
The event was inspiring. I’ve never been the type of person to be content with operating in a contextless vacuum (probably the result of my undergraduate experience at Tulane, which was notedly public-service oriented, as well as my doctoral experience at SBU, during which I’ve found my way to a number of professors who share similar publicly-focused mentalities). So, attending this public history conference was like diving into the deep end of the public humanities pool. It was stimulating to see what other scholars, archivists, and museum workers are doing to serve, educate, and engage the public.
My own session was on the project that I had spent all summer working on in conjunction with a Setauket-based non-profit and another private research company. The project’s goal is to protect and promote the rich (at times richly beautiful, and at times richly somber) history of the community of color in the Three Village Area. This summer, I spent many hours at archive in Emma Clark Library, making copies of historical newspaper articles, oral history transcriptions, cataloged research notes, letters, etc., to help build a strong application for the NY and National Registers of Historical Places. Another part of my involvement this summer was building a map that documents the changes in land ownership in Setauket by people of color from 1873 through the mid-twentieth century. Here is the link to that map.
Here is a video of my presentation (which begins at the 37:00 mark):
There are two sessions I attended that I want to make special note of. The first was by Quinn Berkman and Michael Lorenzini at the NYC Department of Records and Information Services in the Municipal Archives and Library. This joint-presentation stuck with me for days afterward. It was about their project of transforming into something publicly accessible and valuable NYC’s archive of crime scene photos and mugshots from the late 1800s through the 1970s. Their descriptions of the archival process (including wearing a hazmat suit to the storage room where the photos were all located), the methodological strategies behind their digital publications, and their participation in Photoville, a photography exhibition held in storage containers in Brooklyn Bridge Park, were all thought-provoking. Then, of course, the photos from their presentations were grimly fascinating- mugshots and crime scene photos that projected into the audience a strangely cathartic gravitas.
The other session that I’ve thought a lot about since the conference was by Jessica Underwood Varma, Sarah Litvin, and Elly Berke, all of whom at one point or another worked at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Their presentation was about the practical and methodological issues, considerations, and strategies surrounding a first person interpretative aspect of the museum. Specifically, it is about the “afterlife” given to the real, early twentieth-century immigrant girl named Victoria Confino by the museum. Several employees of the museum (including these three presenters) are trained to play Victoria Confino in order to engage with museum visitors and give them a more “lived” experience. The interaction that Confino gives visitors (especially but by no means limited to children) provides an element of human recognition and a connection with historical reality that is much harder to accomplish solely with artifacts and textual descriptions. The level of (meta)cognition that goes into designing something like this is far higher than it might appear at first glance, and I credit these women and the museum staff for their enthusiastic commitment to a complex, yet immensely successful and rewarding, element of their exhibition.
I encourage any other public humanists out there to check out next year’s Public History Collective Conference at the CUNY Grad Center, whether to present or just to be inspired. Being surrounded my like-minded individuals was immensely helpful and inspiring. Discussions at the lunch table alone got me a sizable list of references and resources to check out for my own work, and the presentations were enjoyable and stimulating.