Public Historian’s Perspective: The Importance of Talking About Family History

January 9, 2020

Families are defined in multiple ways, and it is important that we learn what we can about who our families are to help us understand how we came to be. We could also find out who we want to be by learning about our past. Last month I came across an article in Good Housekeeping called “We’re Losing Generations of Family History Because We Don’t Share Our Stories” which made me think about my own perspective about family history as a public historian on both a professional and personal level. I argue that learning about one’s own family history and heritage could be used as an introduction to telling stories that could be shared with other people and learning more about other perspectives.

There is so much we can learn about our past by talking about our stories and sharing them with the next generation. Previous generations have lived through major historical events and we can learn from our relatives about what these events were like from their perspective. Families, especially in the 21st century, are more diverse than it was commonly believed to be 100 years before; therefore, family histories are more complex. As technology advances, we find ways to connect with people around the world including family members who live outside the country. At the same time, family members move away for varying reasons, previous generations grow older and lose memories, children are adopted into other families, and family disputes are some reasons that change and disconnect from family histories. The article I found shared their argument for why we are losing touch with family history and ways to maintain telling stories about our families.

 In Good Housekeeping, they discussed that people usually become interested in genealogy in their 50’s and 60’s and by that time parents and grandparents are already dead or not able to recount these stories. Since I talked to family members at a young age and one of my sisters did a genealogical research at a young age, I feel that this general statement does not represent all people regarding family genealogy. It would be good to see research describing people’s feelings on family history and genealogy, so we have a definitive understanding of how we are losing generations of family history. What I did like about this article is that they pointed out

The solution to this problem is to get people interested in their family histories when they’re still adolescents or young adults, when they can still hear directly from relatives. But how do we cultivate an interest in each other to begin with? By asking thoughtful questions, participating in storytelling, and by focusing on our similarities with our relatives.

By telling the stories when people are younger, they could learn as much as possible to be able to tell these stories to future generations. Asking questions is a great way to start conversations specially to learn more information about family. When I learned about my family history, I asked questions which made me realize how extensive this history is.

I was able to learn a lot about my family history when I was a child and continued to learn as an adolescent. I do however wish that while the senior members of my family were still around so I can check with them about details I am not entirely clear about. What I remember about my family history came from conversations I have had during extended family gatherings and visits with grandparents. I also talked to my grandparents for a school project about what they were doing during World War II; according to my memory, my paternal grandfather was in Alaska and my maternal grandfather was in Hawaii (just after Pearl Harbor) and Japan.

The stories I have heard about my family extend a little bit into my ancestors in the 16th century but I mainly know more about three or four generations back from my generation. My maternal side of the family has mainly an Italian-Irish heritage with living relatives still in northern Italy where my grandfather’s family came from; I also have extended family from my grandmother’s side that I visited growing up at the Christmas parties. My paternal side of the family has mainly an English-Swedish heritage with living relatives still in England where my grandfather’s family came from. When I learned about my heritage, I was inspired to learn more about the culture of the countries my family came from and it sparked my interest in learning about other countries and cultures in the world. Without my family’s willingness to tell these stories and my curiosity, I would not have known about where I came from and been inspired to learn more about other cultures starting with cultures from my own family background.

After I read that article from Good Housekeeping, I took a look at a post from the National Council on Public History (NCPH) website which talked about a conference from a few years ago, the International Family History Workshop in Manchester, United Kingdom. There were a lot of takeaways from the conference that stress the complexity of family history in general. For instance, the international participants of genealogists, sociologists, humanists, psychologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and public historians

…shared an awareness of the ways in which family history methodologies complicate national narratives, especially in settler-colonial and settler-migrant nations. At the same time, the model of “family history” imposed upon local cultures by global information structures and systems often stresses Westernized, Anglophone models of historicity, identity, and family relationships. Hence it may work to occlude, forget, or ignore particular communities and to reify certain ways of thinking about the past and the present. Part of our investigation into family history as a “global” phenomenon within a public history framework must be to recognize the ethical, moral, and political assumptions that are at the heart of these practices.

To study family history in general is complicated because of how every person could view what it means to be a family differently across the world. We should acknowledge how certain ways of thinking influence history including family history. Once I read each of these articles, they reaffirmed that family histories can be complex, and I acknowledge it is important to find out what one should understand about family history.

Have you asked your family members about your family history? What did you find was interesting about researching your family’s history?

Links:

https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/a29610101/preserve-family-history-storytelling/

https://ncph.org/history-at-work/family-history-around-the-world/

https://ncph.org/history-at-work/hold-for-international-family-history-post-from-jermoe-degroot/

Digital Resource Examination: The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook

September 19, 2019

Resources for public historians and museum professionals are numerous, and as both fields are talking about and taking action to being more inclusive there is a demand for resources to help museums, historic sites, and its staff become more inclusive. There are books, professional development sessions, webinars, articles, et. cetera professionals develop and utilize to move the fields forward. I participated in the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH)’s webinar this afternoon about the new digital project, The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook first released in August 2019 during the AASLH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook is co-sponsored by AASLH and the National Council for Public History (NCPH). In the webinar, Kimberly Springle (Executive Director of the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives and an advisory committee member) and Will Walker (associate professor of history, Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta and an editor for the Handbook) presented the website and explained how they envision the site to be used.

The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook is a digital resource that is free and open to all on the internet, and the authors of the entries on the site are experienced public historians and museum professionals. According to Springle and Walker, the goals for the Handbook are

To share a knowledge base that invites more people to engage in history projects,

To center equity, inclusivity, diversity, and public service,

To provide concrete examples of how to make history work more relevant.

I always appreciate projects that has several professionals collaborate to make a difference in the field. I appreciate that one of their approaches for being more inclusive is inviting individuals of varying backgrounds from professionals to individuals who work with historical collections but do not call themselves historians. By having so many contributors, we would have a lot of perspectives represented in each entry. When contributors send in their entries, there are editors and advisors that work together with contributors to make sure their content is as clear and concise as possible. The topics are limitless, and the list the presenters shared proved how extensive the list is and there is always more to write about for the Handbook.

They first shared a list of twenty-one current entries in the Inclusive Historian’s Handbook. A few examples of current entries include accessibility, civic engagement, heritage tourism, memorials and monuments, sexuality, and historic preservation. They also had a list of entries that are in progress of editing including but not limited to activism, oral history, leadership, K-12 history education, and Holocaust history. Lastly, they included a list of proposed entries including but limited to advisory boards, Civil Rights history, decolonizing museums, difficult history, boards and governance, documentary films, gender, and hiring. The editors and Advisory Committee members are still encouraging individuals to contribute to the Handbook by using the contact form on their website.

Participants in the webinar also were asked to answer two short polls in which of the 20 proposed entry categories. In the polls, we chose three categories from each one we were most interested in reading about. I think this would also be helpful for the Handbook to include these polls for visitors to the website so it will help both the Advisory Committee, editors, and contributors know what entries need to be included in the Handbook. Also, I like that the target audience for the Handbook is more inclusive.

Springle and Walker emphasized that the audience for the Handbook is anyone who is seeking to be more inclusive, equitable, and service-oriented in their work not just for paid professionals or academic scholars. Their hope with this digital resource project is that the content is accessible to all individuals who are doing historical work. Also, they had a list of suggested ways to use the Handbook including but not limited to personal reflection, staff development/team building, teaching/mentoring, collaboration/partnerships, resource mining, and contribute. Each suggested way to use the Handbook is significant to help the study of history evolve and inspire people to continue discussing important topics we need to keep fresh in our minds. It will also help museum professionals move forward within the field by delving into important topics we need to continue to address (especially hiring and boards and governance). This is a living digital resource that will be useful for all who seek inclusivity in history, and hopefully future editions will help continue important discussions.

To learn more, check it out here: www.inclusivehistorian.com

A Public Historian’s Participation in Historians At The Movies

June 20, 2019

I first became aware of history depicted in movies was when I was about nine years old and I heard about the movie Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet being released in theaters. I read books about the history of Titanic with a classmate of mine, and I began to become more and more interested in learning about the ship itself and the tragedy that occurred in her maiden voyage.  When I approached my mother about going to see the film, especially since a number of my peers were going to see it, she said no pointing out that it was not going to be historically accurate since it is focused on a love story (and of course she also told me that she did not approve of taking a nine year old to see a PG-13 rated film). The fact that it would not entirely be a historically accurate film was enough for me to not ask to see it again. Almost a decade later, I watched the film and while yes it was more focused on a love story between two fictitious Titanic passengers I was impressed with so much detail that was put in to make the ship as accurate as possible. I may revisit the film in a future blog post to go in depth of how the filmmakers approached historical depiction. Since then, I have always enjoyed watching films depicting historical events or stories taking place in specific time periods.

The reason why I bring up my childhood memory is because this past weekend I participated in a live tweeting discussion called Historians at the Movies. Hosted by Jason Herbert, a Doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota focusing on Indigenous and Atlantic History, Historians at the Movies is an online community for everyone interested in history and films and historians on Twitter that live-tweet films every week using the hashtag #HATM. On Saturday June 15th, I participated in Historians at the Movies live-tweet of the film Carol which is about an aspiring photographer who develops an intimate relationship with an older woman named Carol in 1950s New York starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Participants are asked to use Netflix to get access to the film. If people do not have a Netflix subscription, I think it is possible to still watch the film using other ways including owning or borrowing the DVD/Blu-ray and watching it on demand.

Without revealing any spoilers, I will share a few of my tweets reacting to the film. The following tweets are reactions to the details made in helping make the film set in the 1950s.

Lindsey Steward-Goldberg @Steward2Lindsey

It does a really wonderful job in setting up the time period the story takes place in, and it doesn’t need to have font telling us when it takes place #HATM

Lindsey Steward-Goldberg @Steward2Lindsey

My grandmother had a beautiful collection of clothing she saved and as kids my cousins, sisters, and I would play dress up and put on plays in Nana’s old furs, hats, gloves, scarves, etc. #HATM

In response to a tweet on happiness in 1950s families: It was definitely the perception people in the 1950’s we’re expected to strive for especially from the media but does not exactly reflect the reality of people’s lives in this point in time.  #HATM

Reaction to a department store depicted in the film: It must have taken a lot of research time to not only find out what dolls were sold in that time but finding the dolls or even creating their own dolls using the parts that were used creating them in the doll factories back then. #HATM

If interested in participating in future live-tweets with Historians At The Movies, join them throughout the rest of this month on Saturdays at 9pm using the hashtag #HATM. In July, Historians At The Movies will move to Sundays at 9pm.

As a public historian, I thought the concept of historical depiction in films is interesting and curious about the work filmmakers put into these type of movies. I included a link to the National Council on Public History’s definition of public history in the resources section for those new to the public history field. Now that I have a Master’s degree in Public History I wonder how much involvement did historians have in depicting historical events and stories taking place in a specific time period. I watch films keeping in mind that there are decisions all involved in making them they need to consider to make visual and technical sense to entertain the intended audiences. This past weekend’s live-tweet of Carol was an example of that. I see films and television shows that are set in time periods or depict moments in history are ways to bring attention to history and hopefully inspire viewers to learn more by visiting museums, reading books, watching documentaries, and other accurate resources available.

How do you feel about history being depicted in films and televisions? Do you believe it has an impact on the history that is being portrayed in these mediums?

Resources:

https://ncph.org/what-is-public-history/about-the-field/ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2402927/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1

Patron Request: Does History Repeat Itself? A Discussion About This Concept

Added to Medium, June 14, 2018

One of the common thoughts that has been discussed numerous times over the years is “does history repeat itself”. We continue to ask ourselves this question as well as: What makes history repeat itself? Individuals in and outside of academia talked about the concept of history repeating itself especially when discussing current events that remind ourselves of the past. I was introduced to the concept itself while I was studying history in college. One of my history professors had stated, which I will never forget, that history does not repeat but rhymes. I think it is a good point because we are not repeating the exact same circumstances of the past but we are living through situations that definitely sound similar.

For instance, we do not go through every single day by going through the same movements and the same actions of Pearl Harbor in a time loop forever. We do, however, see similar patterns that are recognized from previous historic events as we face current events. When I was asked to write about this concept, I thought it would be a good topic to write about this week and to revisit the concept by doing research on what has been written about the topic. While I was doing my research, I found numerous information about the concept of history repeating itself.

The concept of history repeating itself is also known as historic recurrence. In addition to the concept of history rhyming, I also like the term “historic recurrence” because it acknowledges actions that have reappeared in different circumstances. G.W. Trompf’s The Idea of Historical Recurrence in Western Thought, from Antiquity to the Reformation, they discussed that historical recurrence has variously been applied to the overall history of the world (such as the rises and falls of empires), to repetitive patterns in the history of a given society, and to any two specific events which bear a striking similarity. A post called “Short Paragraph on the concept of history repeats itself” provided a brief discussion about historic recurrence. It stated that,

History is thus nothing, but man’s long struggle for survival, identity and values. The struggle has often been born more than a slight resemblance in methods used and the manner adopted in such period. Such repetition of historical fact-events, ideas and acts-sometimes makes us think that there was nothing coincidental, but a planned sequence leading towards a pre-destined goal.

These statements pointed out an important idea: history is a human experience. Humans make various decisions every day whether they are living now or have lived a thousand years ago. Even though all humans that have existed and currently live on this planet lived with different technological advances and life expectancy, each human develop similar habits, thought processes, and actions which leaves the next human to look back at past human experiences and see similar patterns.

Historic recurrence is not a new concept, rather the discussions about historic recurrence began in ancient times. According to Trompf, ancient western thinkers focused on cosmological rather than historic recurrence and they introduced western philosophers and historians who have discussed various concepts of historic recurrence including Polybius, the Greek historian and rhetorician Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Italian philosopher and historian Niccolò Machiavelli. A modern historian named Arnold J. Toynbee also discussed concepts of historic recurrence.

Scholars have come up with their own conclusions about historic recurrence within their works. Arnold J. Toynbee’s book Civilization on Trial has a chapter dedicated to historic recurrence called “Does History Repeat Itself?”, and provides an example of thoughts on historic recurrence. Toynbee stated in this chapter that

If human history repeats itself, it does so in accordance with the general rhythm of the universe; but the significance of this pattern of repetition lies in the scope that it gives for the work of creation to go forward. In this light, the repetitive element in history reveals itself as an instrument for freedom of creative action, not as an indication that God and man are the slaves of fate (38).

In other words, Toynbee believes history repeats itself based on humans having the capability of making their own decisions and have the choice to follow on their actions. Individuals also have the choice to make changes to move forward in society. Historic recurrence has been discussed in the past, and will continue to be discussed as long as humans continue to exhibit similar behaviors and make similar decisions.

What do you think of the concept of “history repeats itself”? Does it really repeat or rhyme? Do we have a choice in breaking these patterns? Why or why not?

People’s Experiences during the Great Depression

Added to Medium, May 31, 2018

For this week, I was asked to write about a topic in history that always interested this patron: people’s experience during the Great Depression. She is interested in this topic because she was told about her mother’s life when the Great Depression hit, and her mother told her that years later she did not realize the impact of the Great Depression until many years later when she talked about it with her friends. I also thought it is an interesting topic to discuss because I knew of the general information about what happened during the Great Depression, and learning more about the specific experiences of individuals within the United States would not only give us the human perspective of the event but it would also help us identify with the individuals as we continue to recover from the recession.

I took a closer look into learning about individuals’ experiences during the Great Depression through the material I came across.

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression which took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. According to PBS, on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, triggering the Great Depression, which was the worst economic collapse in the history of the modern industrial world. A strong believer in rugged individualism, President Herbert Hoover did not think the federal government should offer relief to the poverty-stricken population. Focusing on a trickle-down economic program to help finance businesses and banks, Hoover met with resistance from business executives who preferred to lay off workers. Not many people living during that time understood how everyone was living since the big hit and the years since then.

In Washington state, for instance, more than a quarter of the population had lost their source of income, from unemployment or loss of a family breadwinner. According to research from the University of Washington, in response to the larger changes happening in the government

People in Washington and across the nation developed new household and work practices, navigated emerging social systems of welfare, explored different avenues of social protest, and reworked their understandings of their role in communities, in the nation, and in the world.

The changes during the Great Depression were absolutely felt by the individuals who lived in the state. An article written and posted through the University of Washington by Annie Morro provides a glimpse of what everyday life was like in the town of Bellingham after the Great Depression.

In the town of Bellingham, which had been a thriving coal-mining town in Washington’s Whatcom County, many men found their wages and hours cut, or lost their jobs completely. Meanwhile the wives and mothers throughout Whatcom County did their best to adjust to the hard times, and one way to do this was to change household routines such as cooking simple recipes like Quick Breads that used every day ingredients and left money typically spent on bread for their other needs.

Women were expected to be a positive force in the community and the supportive center of a family and community weathering hardships. It was anticipated that women would become active community members by attending PTA meetings, raising funds for charities, collecting clothing for the needy, saving at the market, raising a family, and providing encouragement for disheartened husbands all while keeping up a happy, normal appearance. Children in the Bellingham community absolutely felt the affects of the Great Depression.

They were raised to be competitive on the job market and active members of their community, which reflected the cooperative community’s values as well as the competitive nature of a very tight job market. Older children, teenagers and college students, felt the effects of the Great Depression through school budget cuts which made it harder for them to begin their own lives through the difficult times. The experiences of each individual in the United States seemed similar while at the same time more specific experiences were different from one another.

I learned of an experience from the patron whose mother lived in Massachusetts as a little girl during the Great Depression. This patron’s mother grew up on Cape Cod, and lived on vegetables grown in her family’s garden. As an adult, she learned about one of her friends, who lived closer to the Boston area, knew too well about the concept of “coresies”. Coresies was when someone yelled out coresies that person would be able to eat the core of the apple once the person who was eating the apple left the core. As I compared the experiences of individuals from Washington and the two women from Massachusetts, I noticed that each individual of varying ages had different perspectives of the Great Depression based on what society expected from them.

Families had to adapt in order to survive, and their misfortunes did not seem to end until the New Deal introduced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt began to help people turn their lives around. It took until the end of World War II for the nation to fully recover from the Great Depression.

What experiences have you learned about individuals who lived during the Great Depression? Are there similarities and differences that stood out the most to you?

Resources
https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/dustbowl-great-depression/
http://depts.washington.edu/depress/everyday_life.shtml
https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression
https://www.britannica.com/event/Great-Depression
https://www.nytimes.com/topic/subject/the-great-depression
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Depression_cake
https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/8214/depression-cake-i/