I spent a beautiful fall weekend at Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the first ever National Council on Public History Camping Con. When I heard NCPH was sponsoring a mini conference about “Outdoor Public History,” where participants would camp together in a national park, it was a no-brainer. Camping in a national park? Check. Close to my house? Check. Public history peeps? CHECK CHECK CHECK. I couldn’t get my proposal submitted fast enough.
As I was packing, I had some reservations about the conference set up. These feelings mostly focused on my wardrobe and how I would get my caffeine fix in the morning. I knew it was going to be casual, but how casual? After some ruminating Friday morning, I decided yoga pants would just have to do until I set up camp.
I arrived at the group campsite at Cades Cove Campground to find the coolest conference nametags in the history of conferences: tree cookies with our names emblazoned on raw wood with fun colored leather lanyards. I found a spot in the group campground and set up my tent with my queen-sized air mattress that took up almost the entire space inside. Other people came equipped with camping pads or yoga mats. As we discussed the next night by the fire, there is no right or wrong way to camp. You do you.
My reservations about how to appear professional at a camping conference very quickly dissipated. Everyone was excited to be there and had struggled with their tent poles just as I had. It was a smallish group with about 43 attendees, plus one insanely cool Newfoundland named Cady. It was a diverse group of academics, consultants, practitioners, and grad students. One contingent did not overwhelm the other, which is not always the case at the annual NCPH meeting. Some people were old friends, but many I have never met before. Attendees were collegial, friendly, and genuinely excited to be there. We had excellent keynote speakers, including Nigel Fields, GRSM’s new Chief of Resource Education. Dr. Tameria Warren, an Environmental Specialist at Fort Jackson, led an important group discussion by firelight of Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces in White Spaces.
I found the best moments of the conference were when campers decided to eschew regular conventions. For example, we had a rainy first night and drizzly morning on Saturday. I stayed dry on my luxuriant boat of a mattress, but others had not fared as well. They remained good sports on Saturday, but still it wasn’t a restful night for them. I didn’t put on any makeup in the morning, and by the time it was my turn to lead a tour of Tremont, I said screw it. I gave my presentation sans makeup, which might not sound like a big deal until I remembered the time I was at a major conference as a grad student and ran into my advisor and her friends coming off the elevator after I worked out at the hotel gym. It really wasn’t a big deal at the time, but I was still somewhat mortified to see my advisor and these leading people in the field in a post-gym state. So to do an entire presentation largely not caring what I looked like was quite liberating.
My scheduled tour probably did not have the best time slot because it started when most people were starting to eat lunch. I pushed it back a bit so that more people could go. In a normal conference setting, can you imagine saying, “You know, let’s just wait fifteen minutes”? A conference organizer somewhere is having vapors by the thought. Two presenters took advantage of this relaxed atmosphere to combine presentations. Instead of splitting the group, almost everyone was able to attend together and enjoy a beautiful walk around Cades Cove.
Here are some other things I liked about the set up:
- It was cheap. Registration only cost $40 and included two meals. I bought camping gear, but could have easily borrowed equipment or signed up for the tent share program.
- Everyone was happy to share whatever they had: food, equipment, and even coffee. That really added to the sense of conviviality and community.
- There was no cell service, which was awesome. That may be a bit hypocritical on my part because I love using social media during conferences. In fact, that is how I have connected with many public historians. But by not having cell service at Camping Con, I was completely distraction-free and could really engage with people and their work.
- I have to think camping is much more environmentally sustainable than a conventional meeting.
- Place is so critically important to public history, it was invigorating to be completely immersed in a place.
- Campfires every night. Campfires = s’mores. Enough said.
My only complaint is one that is common with many conferences: too many interesting activities happening at once. Look, I get it. You want to get as many people on the program as possible so that they will come. But I had several people tell me they couldn’t make my program because they were eating lunch or wanted/needed to do something else. The nice thing, though, was that because the group was so small and had no electronic distractions, I could talk to people about my research over the course of the weekend. All was not lost.
Several of us mentioned how hard it is going to be to go back to the regular conference model of cold, non-personable hotel conference centers I’m starting to wonder about all those conventions and “conference etiquette” that we normally take for granted as part of “professional development,” and question if they are even necessary.
But, really, the most important question is where will we do this next? Thanks Tammy Gordon, Anne Whisnant, and Seth Bruggeman for getting this started. Can’t wait for the next one!