Today marks the 150th anniversary of the term ‘homosexual.' Please share this article and join me in affirming the legacy of the activist who coined it - Karl Maria Kertbeny.
Each section establishes a thematic bent for discussion. Some (but not all) of these topics emphasize historical context, comparing and contrasting contemporary facts with the past: “Today, about one-third of doctors are women. Over 150 years ago this was not the case.” (“Eliza Grier and Matilda Evans”). Video narration over primary source images and text clarifies the points being discussed (e.g., short definitions of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Amendments in “Early African-American Woman Physicians”). While use of both text and video benefit different types of learners, their intermittent informational overlaps are repetitive, but still effective in reinforcing recurrent points. For example, both the text and video in “Women’s Hospitals in World War I France” state that “Women physicians were not permitted by the Allied countries” — stressing the prejudices women faced. Little elaboration is offered, however, leaving the audience with unanswered questions: What were the reasons behind these rules? Why weren’t exceptions made for wartime? One might argue that physical exhibits, with the benefit of docents and tour guides, allow for more user interaction and explanation. Conversely, online exhibits encourage online follow-up research, and might even include direct access to good primary and secondary source materials (i.e., portals).
Each section also includes questions for reflection that outline the information (making it digestible and useful for educators and students), while social media tools encourage viewers to actively engage with the resources (especially younger audiences). The exhibit successfully illustrates contextual relationships; the timeline places each topic in its temporal setting, while maps provide geographic setting for the sites discussed in each story. “Essential Evidence” acts as a catalog of historical documents relevant to the discussion, providing background for each item and a discussion of its significance within a larger thematic scheme. This analysis is accompanied by high quality scans of sources, their transcriptions, and audio recordings that resolve issues of accessibility. Additionally, document details hyperlink out to specific, cited sources; the transparency of the evidence lends credibility to the historical perspectives offered.
“Related Primary Sources” furnish additional points of interest that, while relevant to the overall topic, aren’t necessary to its understanding. However, the selection of what is most pertinent to each topic seems variable. For example, an article from The Medical Woman’s Journal describing refugee conditions is used as “Essential Evidence” in “WWI France,” yet another article from the Journal describing both race and gender discrimination in school and the workplace is a “Related Primary Source” in “Grier and Evans.” Additionally, the scans of both these journals are bulky, containing the entirety of the publications, potentially making it difficult to scroll through and find the articles being discussed. Luckily, there are bookmarks within the scans that block off specific segments that the curators likely found most significant.
Questions for a panel of public history professionals:
Such narratives are inherently racialized because they become dependent upon the specter of a foreign enemy, a threat to economic security domestically. Yet, Kitch's inclusion of the narratives of economically disenfranchised people of color is tangential at best (81-4). By framing "collective narrative construction"as the framework through which people of disparate experiences ought to find "common ground," Kitch naively conveys public history as a unifying enterprise (i.e., something through which to quell the antagonisms of the white working class and the guilt of the white middle class). Had she more thoroughly juxtaposed the experiences of working-class whites and people of color, her audience would have been better able to conceive of public history as an educational enterprise – something meant to contextualize and illuminate the inequities of the past and present.
Likewise, Kitch's treatment of immigration as the "unifying theme"of economic historiographies implicitly prioritizes the "white ethnic" experience. Momentarily engaging the question of "who is 'ethnic'?" (156-7), she never discusses the rich "industrial past" of Philadelphia – a prime example of the economic disenfranchisement of Black Americans. Instead, Kitch glosses over the"industrial heritage" of Black Americans by espousing an oversimplified, two-step journey of "geographic mobility toward freedom in the north" and "economic mobility through their inclusion in certain industries."*
Meanwhile, Kitch's careful consideration of oral histories evokes questions of respect for "storytellers" who interpret their own experiences and ancestries and, thus, the value of community engagement (84). Indeed, "shared authority" has become somewhat of a buzzword in the field lately – reminding us to be wary of methodological hypocrisy. Many a paternalistic public historian has claimed to "give voice," and to bestow the aforementioned "authority" upon a community to tell its own history. Kitch engages this issue, but, again, only within the confines of white working-class narratives. There still remains a seeming resistance to apply this method of epistemic privilege to "racial" histories; the inclusion of curators, interpreters, docents and tour guides from the community whose history is being shared is only afforded to "color-blinded" narratives of class, gender, and sexuality.
Indeed, according to Denise Meringolo in Museums, Monuments, and National Parks, the "professionalization" of the public history field began in the mid-1970s as a result of economic recession (xiv-xv). The recruitment of jobless academics (and, as such, the programmatic occupation of the field by the white middle class) to serve as official or "objective" storytellers is nothing new. The American Historical Association's new initiative on"career diversity" (ironically, not about race) exemplifies this issue.
So, how do we envision the potential of new fields like digital history to support the grassroots disruption of the narratives legitimized by institutional powers and the "demographically flawed" workforces that have created and maintained them? Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen found that museums were the most trusted sources of "historical fact" in the mid-1990s, thanks to their survey (the results of which are recounted both online and in The Presence of the Past). Does that belief still hold today, in the age of "fake news," when we cling to such flawed and aged establishments with the hope that they will provide the answers? Likewise, Rosenzweig and Thelen found that over a third of people had investigated their family history in the last year. The authors view this statistic as an indication that we first ground, then experience our identities (ancestries and positionalities) as the impetuses for our change-making aspirations. Such subjectivity is, perhaps, incongruous with the sanctification of "objective" institutions like museums.
As Ian Tyrell demonstrates in Historians in Public, public historians' drive to emphasize our usefulness has, historically, lent itself to ultimately supporting the state's narrative – the powers to which we find ourselves appealing for legitimation and support (i.e., funding). Historians like Jesse Lemisch have lamented that "history [is] at the service of power" (246).
*For a great digital project that thoroughly and meaningfully tells this history, check out "Old Philadelphians and Southern Newcomers: An Experience of the Great Migration" by Tina Conway, Richard Fontanet and Brad Horstmann.
This August marks the 150th anniversary of the world's first known queer protest. In commemoration of this historic event and the activist behind it, I ask that you please read and share this article. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs died in relative obscurity at the age of 69. It is my sincerest wish to honor his legacy, and I hope you will join me in telling his story.
Click the link or image above to read more!
A big thank you to the National Council on Public History for featuring my digital history project "The Semiotics of Sex: A History of Queer Identity Politics" this week. Thanks especially to the History@Work editors for working with me on this blog post!
Click the link or image above to read more!