Federal History and the Public Audience

I had the opportunity to join a group of historians over the weekend working in or for the federal government. Lucky for me I didn’t have to venture very far—just to my old stomping grounds of Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The Society for History in the Federal Government met for its annual conference on the campus of Shepherd University in the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies. Our hosts at the Byrd Center were great, by the way! I was glad that SHFG held the meeting outside the beltway and in my beautiful home state. You can read the meeting program here. 

This was my first time going to this meeting and being with this group, even though I did contribute to the organization’s newsletter a few years ago. I saw some friendly faces from the National Park Service, West Virginia University, and National Council on Public History. I met new people from the National Archives, Department of Defense, State Department, Department of Agriculture, and various other agencies, as well as other graduate students and independent historians.

The conference kicked off on Friday evening with a welcome from president, David McMillen. He introduced Charlene Bangs Bickford, Project Director and Co-Editor, First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University. She gave the Roger F. Trask Lecture and spoke about her experience with the First Federal Congress Project. We then headed to the nearby Bavarian Inn for a reception.

Saturday was full of interesting sessions. I started the morning at the panel on the state of history in the National Park Service. The panelists–Kelly Spradley-Kurowski, Lu Ann Jones, and Dean Herrin—talked about Imperiled Promise and how it was being implemented from the Washington Office and in the National Capital Region. I have heard several presentations of the report’s findings, but I am always fascinated by the conversation afterward. The panelists asked the audience—many of whom worked for agencies besides the NPS—if they have ever had experience of reflecting on their own agency’s practice of doing history, or if they ever asked an outsider to do evaluate it. I thought those were important questions and I think the audience seemed to indicate that the NPS might be ahead of other agencies.

I next attended a panel of careers in the federal government. I asked the panelists what skills were important in their positions that they might not have gotten in their graduate programs. The historian for the National Archives responded that navigating bureaucracy is an essential skill in itself. The panelists also emphasized versatility, the ability to write for public audiences and meeting deadlines,  and how to find the “eighty percent solution” versus “one hundred percent.”

My panel on establishment, preservation, and interpretation of historic sites convened after lunch and I was thrilled to be included. Evan Medley,  doctoral candidate at Arizona State University, presented his dissertation research on Fort Union National Monument. He is concerned with “place making” and I was fascinated that he was asking almost identical questions to my own dissertation research. We both want to know why do parks look the way they do. His approach centers on “place making,” whereas I look at the interrelationship between natural conservation, historic preservation, and social reform. I then presented my residency project in which I gave a brief overview of the history of human conservation programs at Catoctin Mountain Park, and then finished with a brief virtual tour of the Round Meadow area. Dean Herrin, my residency mentor, rounded out the panel by talking about the mysterious case of John Brown’s bell at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. I love his research, but I feel like I would be a spoiler if I talked about it here! We had great audience questions after the presentations. A staff member at the Robert C. Byrd center made the connection between Catoctin and other New Deal conservation projects in the area and I was able to help contextualize his thoughts a bit further. An audience member also brought up Civilian Conservation Corps memory as opposed to the Job Corps, which is a topic that I have been thinking probably deserves its own blog post.

The last panel I attended was on diplomatic history and I enjoyed hearing WVU’s Richard Hulver speak about his dissertation research on how foreign cemeteries in France have been used for diplomacy by both the United States and France. His work is a fascinating intersection of diplomatic and memory studies.

Just a few minutes ago I signed up for student membership for SHFG. I am pretty selective of the number of organizations that I join because the membership fees can quickly add up. However, I was so impressed by the friendliness and receptiveness of the members that I look forward to meeting with them again and staying engaged in the organization. The quality of research that participants presented was top-notch. The group is small, but it is diverse and hope that diversity might point me to opportunities I had been previously unaware. There were not many graduate students at the meeting, but I hope that some of my colleagues will consider going in the future.

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