Wandering in York County

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Jackie Beatty teaching York College's new public history course. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Tackling challenging issues in public history at York College

Sometimes, our past includes challenging events, people, and ideas. However, that doesn’t mean public historians should exclude them from our discussions.

Instead, the full history, even the tough stuff, should be included.

For example, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where “history never gets old,” faced a difficult task positioning the brutal history of slavery within its attraction for the general public.

Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg is a historical site with tons of excitement, information, and family fun. Most of us visit without thinking of the behind-the-scenes decisions that go into every detail.

One element of Colonial Williamsburg we perhaps don’t think of is this: It’s a business. The complex is expensive to maintain so funding requirements fuel profit-seeking behaviors. What I mean by this is that Colonial Williamsburg, understandably, cares about its ratings. It needs to balance a healthy amount of accurate historical information with a need to please its customers.

Should it sell merchandise? Should food be sold? If so, what kind? Is a KFC okay at Colonial Williamsburg or should it serve only time-period appropriate food?

With all these questions, I have to ask: Is commercializing history wrong?

On one hand, yeah! It frustrates me that a company could distort the accuracy of history in order to bring in cash. Monetizing our heritage seems superficial and degrading.

But on the other hand, not everyone loves history to the same degree as you and me (as evident by the fact that you’re reading this blog). I will visit a site simply for the raw enjoyment of listening to the stories of our ancestors. Yet, the business model requires visitors – paying visitors – just to stay open.

Living history provides an experience where visitors can be fully immersed. But, visitors want to come and enjoy themselves, not experience the disease, filth, embarrassment, racism, and sexism of our challenging past.

A historical site needs to simultaneously provide an authentic experience paired with a pleasurable time that people want to pay for.

For example, how can we inform the public about slavery at Colonial Williamsburg?

Slavery happened. And, slavery is a dark stain on our nation’s history. But, to ignore it would be wrong. There’s no easy answer to this question.

At this point, you may be asking, “Why is this local history blogger discussing Colonial Williamsburg?”

York College’s new public history class

York College of Pennsylvania implemented a brand new major: public history. How exciting! I wish YCP would have offered this while I earned my history degree from there – considering this blog is technically a form of public history!

York College students engage in lively discussions on challenging history in the new public history course. Jamie Kinsley Photo.

Public history is a broad field including interpreting history and then communicating history to the general public in the form of museums, historical sites, archivist, and bloggers. It’s a profession that’s usually contrasted with academic history where historians write for a specific audience (such as an academic conference on World War I).

Public history, on the other hand, must be tailored for a more general audience.  This requires many skills such as researching and writing. But more importantly, public historians present history in a way that is accessible to the average person.

Jacqueline Beatty, a new faculty member this year, has been instrumental in the development of the program and courses at YCP.

While visiting Beatty’s class, Jim McClure and I saw inquiry-based pedagogy, which means she got the kids thinking, filled with class participation. Knowing each student by name, Beatty led her class though a discussion based off an article they read for homework about Colonial Williamsburg.

During their conversation, Beatty said we need to face our difficult history head on – acknowledge and learn from it. With that said, visitors should be able to choose how much they want to engage. For instance, the 9/11 museum in New York City has an area sectioned off for visitors to watch film of people dying. The hidden nature of the room allows patrons to walk past if they wish, or immerse themselves – whichever they feel most comfortable with.

“A little discomfort,” Beatty said, “is worth presenting the information accurately.”

Balancing historical presentation with the smorgasbord of choices balances the line between truth and consumer preferences.

After the discussion during the public history class, students worked in groups on their York-based, culminating project called the “Living History Project.”

Real world projects based on York’s history

Three groups worked on different sites for their Living History Project: York City center, the Agricultural and Industrial Museum, and the Goodridge Freedom Center. Each poses unique advantages and challenges.

York College Professor, Jackie Beatty, teaching about public history.

York College Professor, Jackie Beatty, teaching about public history.Over the course of the semester, students created a portfolio filled with designs for a monument, an activity day, designing exhibits, conducting oral history interviews, writing transcripts and reflections, and proposing a digital plan for social media for a web presence – each mini-project centered on a different element of public history.

Students had to physically visit the site before they developed their theoretical understanding. Getting a sense of the place was critical, Beatty told me, to creating the Living History Project. “It’s necessary,” she said, “to get your hands dirty sometimes.”

This real life, project-based approach to history has made a positive effect on Brianna Nelson – a sophomore and history major who likes museum work and preserving history.

Technology, she told me, has changed the way we present history. That’s why Beatty is teaching the digital public history class in the fall.

Local historians are hopeful that YCP’s new public history major will create a greater impact on the larger York community. If the visit to Beatty’s class is any indication, the new program will not stray away from the difficult, yet extremely important, elements of our complicated history.

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