Museum conferences vs. academic conferences

Some co-workers and I were talking about conferences recently—namely, how enjoyable and beneficial museum conferences are.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend both academic history conferences and conferences aimed at museum professionals, mostly because my own professional background has straddled the divide between academic and public history.  My training has followed the route usually taken by academics, but a lot of my work experience has been in public history.

Here are some of the differences between academic history conferences and museum conferences that I’ve found most striking:

  • Museum conferences are far more collaborative.  You get the sense that you’re part of a group of people who are all engaged in the same enterprise, and they’re getting together to help each other out.  It’s not about listening to individual presenters report on the results of their separate investigations. It’s about sharing hard-won experiential knowledge that attendees can reapply to their own situations.
  • On a related note, museum conferences are far more practical. In most sessions, practitioners discuss how they’ve tackled problems that are common to the profession, and they explain what worked and what didn’t. You leave armed with stuff you can use.
  • Museum conference presentations are far more engaging.  You’re unlikely to hear a single paper read verbatim.  Even single-presenter sessions are geared more toward facilitating a conversation than conveying information from presenter to recipients.
  • Museum conferences tend to be less cliquish.  I don’t mean “cliquish” to come across as pejorative as it sounds.  I just mean that I’ve noticed more cross-pollination between different groups at museum conferences than at academic ones.  I should note that there are exceptions to this.  I once attended a large conference for presidential history sites, and it was interesting to see how the various sub-groups coalesced.  Folks from the big Founders’ homes tended to hang out together, as did people from the Gilded Age presidential sites, people from the twentieth-century presidents’ libraries, etc.  But I don’t see as much self-sorting of this kind at museum conferences as I do at academic conferences of comparable size.
  • For what it’s worth—and, again, this is a totally unscientific conclusion drawn solely from personal observation—museum conferences I’ve attended have been more gender-balanced. Not long ago I went to a museum conference with a session aimed specifically at site directors—that is, people in positions of executive leadership at their respective institutions.  I’d say the audience was at least 85% women, and the panel itself consisted solely of women.  Now, I should stress that I’m not saying the museum profession doesn’t have problems with gender inequities in promotions, pay, and hiring.  It does, even though women make up a majority of U.S. museum employees.  But let me ask you this: If a regional academic history conference offered a session specifically for full tenured professors, what would be the odds that women would make up 80% or more of the attendees?

Not to put too fine a point on anything, but I think the world of academia could learn a thing or two about conferences from museum people.

Michigan History Museum. Photo by Michael Barera [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D via Wikimedia Commons

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New grad student award endowment to honor Dr. Josh Hodge

History grad students at the University of Tennessee lost a good friend and colleague this year when Dr. Josh Hodge passed away from cancer at the age of thirty-five.  He was a husband, a father, and a very promising scholar.

Josh completed his dissertation, “Alabama’s Public Wilderness: Reconstruction Politics, Natural Resources, and the End of the Southern Commons, 1866-1905,” shortly before his passing.  In addition, he edited the forthcoming book Cas Walker: Stories on His Life and Legend, a collection of reflections on the irascible politician, broadcaster, and grocery store magnate who left an indelible impression on twentieth-century Knoxville.

In honor of Josh, some folks have set up an award endowment for graduate students in history at UT.  Click here to make an online donation through UT’s Office of University Advancement.

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In which David Barton invokes the Revolutionary War

A few days ago, James Robison’s TV show featured court evangelical Robert Jeffress and David Barton.

Barton’s Rev War illustration has a few problems. (Shocking, I know.)

He notes that at the outset of the war in New England, “nobody contacted the national commander-in-chief and said, ‘Hey, we got the enemy coming.  What are you going to do about it?'”  That’s…not exactly inaccurate. But it wasn’t because the Revolutionaries intentionally bucked national authority in favor of local action.

Initially, there wasn’t really a “national commander-in-chief” to contact, since there was neither a national army nor a national governing body.  The Second Continental Congress didn’t convene until May 1775, weeks after the fighting had broken out at Lexington and Concord.

Barton’s argument that local church congregations more or less shouldered the early war effort is likewise problematic.  The mobilization of New England militia in 1775 didn’t all boil down to ministers organizing their congregants into battalions. The pulpit and the pew bolstered Revolutionary mobilization, but Barton is engaging in quite a bit of overstatement and oversimplification—which is generally the case when he discusses the role of the church in American history.

Barton also says, “The reason we won the national battle was we won all the local battles.” Given his references to specific engagements like Lexington and Bunker Hill, I assume he means “local battles” literally. So did the Revolutionaries achieve final victory because they won these battles?

That’s not even close to accurate with regard to the war as a whole. It’s more tenable if you’re only referring to the war’s initial stages, although one wonders what “winning the national battle” would mean short of victory in the war.  (And even the statement that the Americans won the “local battles” early in the war would be debatable on one level, since Bunker Hill was technically a British victory, albeit a Pyrrhic one.)

In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of what happened during Nathanael Greene’s campaigning in the South.  Greene himself did not gain a single clear-cut battlefield victory, although his subordinates did. But his campaigns nevertheless wrested control of the Carolinas out of British hands. Greene won the long game despite losing the individual battles.

Maybe Barton means “battles” metaphorically, and is speaking in political terms. In other words, the Revolutionaries succeeded because they laid the organizational groundwork on the local level. The Revolution is indeed a pretty good case study in the effectiveness of building local political momentum to generate a national movement. 

Local committees and provincial institutions helped shift American attitudes toward support for resistance and then independence, which Congress formalized in July 1776. But these local organizational efforts weren’t solely the work of churches, any more than military mobilization was.

Of course, I realize that all this might come across as pedantic.  The real purpose of Barton’s little history lesson isn’t to explain the Revolution, but to encourage local political action and promote his culture war.  History is just a means to an end.  But, hey, this is a history blog. And if you’re going to invoke history for political purposes, you should get your facts straight…or at least be precise enough to make it clear what you’re talking about.

Militia on the Revolutionary War’s first day. From A Brief History of the United States by Joel Dorman Steele and Esther Baker Steele, 1885 via Wikimedia Commons.

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The problems with presidential libraries

Running a presidential library might just be the toughest gig in public history.

Michael Koncewicz, who worked at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, shares a few war stories over at Contingent Magazine.  It’s like a perfect storm of administrative and interpretive nightmares.

Private foundations raise the money to build and operate these institutions, while the federal government is generally responsible for the records themselves.  This can lead to tension over control of the programming.  The subject matter is inescapably political—and since you’re dealing with an individual’s life and legacy, it’s also personal.  The history is often recent and raw.

To top it all off, the subject’s family and associates likely sit on the foundation’s board, looking over the staff’s shoulders.  In the case of the Nixon Museum and Library, the subject himself was looking over everyone’s shoulder, weighing in on the exhibit content.  As Koncewicz writes, it led to some…well, problematic interpretive approaches:

The original exhibit on Watergate blamed the president’s enemies for his downfall and glossed over the key sections of the infamous tapes that led to his resignation. The text read, in part, “Commentators sought to portray Watergate strictly as a morality play, as a struggle between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Given the benefit of time, it is now clear that Watergate was an epic and bloody political battle fought for the highest stakes, with no holds barred.” Museum visitors were told Nixon did not obstruct justice, and Watergate was nothing but partisan politics.

There was also the small matter of spying on the tour guides:

I was also informed they were upset that I had recently rushed through a temporary Nixon centennial exhibit during one of my school tours—which meant, among other things, that I had been spied on! I was further told they were less than thrilled with my dissertation research, a study of Republicans who resisted Nixon’s orders. (The project was born out of my time working on the revamped Watergate exhibit, and was an early version of what eventually became my first book, They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power.) Finally, there were another two or three instances in which I was spied on during a tour, and there were probably others I was not aware of.

Nixon’s presidential limousine at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. Happyme22 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

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Some TV coverage of ALLM’s closing and expansion project

The folks at WBIR stopped by on Saturday to cover our closing event and the upcoming expansion.  Enjoy!

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ALLM is going into hibernation, and then coming back bigger than ever

This week is your last chance to visit the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum before we close for our big renovation and expansion project.  We’re throwing a celebration on Saturday, July 20 from 10:00 to 6:00 with free admission, refreshments, a special glimpse inside our manuscript vault, and major discounts on items in our gift shop.  If any of you folks are within driving distance of the Cumberland Gap area, I hope to see some of you there.

And I definitely hope to see lots of you visit the expanded museum when this project is done.  We’ve got big changes in store, both inside and out: brand new exhibits on Lincoln in memory and the history of Lincoln Memorial University, some updates to our current gallery spaces, a learning lab, improved visitor access, a new front entrance, outdoor experiences, and more.  It’s going to take quite a while to get it all in place; we’ll probably reopen in late 2020.  But it should be well worth the wait.

Until then, I’ll be posting info about the project along with my usual history effusions here at my blog.  And we’ll have regular updates on the ALLM’s official Facebook and Twitter.

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New blog on Pennsylvania in the Civil War

Who says blogging is dead?  Check this out.  It’s the creation of a gang of young public historians.

It’s nice to see a new Civil War blog pop up, especially since so many of the old standards from the first decade of the millennium have gone defunct.

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