Intro to Public History Week Five: Weekend Update

In lieu of readings this week, I’ll provide a quick update as to my progress on a couple of the projects for Managing History, as well as my impressions of the Mireya Loza presentations this week about her marvelous Bracero History Project.

Outreach for 1918 Spanish Influenza Epidemic Project:
I’m still pretty unfamiliar with the vast array of Philadelphia-area cultural institutions, archives, and historical sites, and so I fear I can’t contribute as much to the partnership-brainstorming phase of this project as some others have been able to. I do enjoy a good archival record dive, though, so I hope that my research can dig up something substantial regardless.

So far, I’ve contacted the Barbara Bates Center for the History of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and the German Society of Pennsylvania Library after I found a few pertinent collections in the PACSCL database. I will need to visit the repositories in the coming week in order to view the collections and assess their value for the project. I also reached out to the Red Cross. Although I wasn’t able to find anything related to Philadelphia in their collections at the National Archives, I hope that the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of the organization might have retained some of its archival material from 1918.

I did find one interesting item in the National Archives catalog: a group of 7 photographs buried in the otherwise boring records of the U.S. Shipping Board with the following intriguing descriptor: “Box 12 contains photos of people in Philadelphia helping during the 1918 Influenza pandemic.” I’m not able to request reproductions, but would be allowed to make copies of the photos by visiting the photo archives in College Park, MD. I’ll see if I’ll have time to do that or if I can entice one of my Maryland or DC friends to make the trip for me.

Dr. Mireya Loza and the Bracero History Project

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Belen Soto Moreno, “Working on the Farm,” in Bracero History Archive, Item #3050, http://braceroarchive.org/items/show/3050 (accessed October 2, 2016).

I hadn’t ever heard of braceros or the Bracero History Project before Dr. Mireya Loza, historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, came to present on “The Bracero Program, Migration, and Political History” at Temple’s Paley Library on Thursday. So I was all the more impressed with the massive collection scale and range of community outreach that went into the making of her online Bracero History Archive and its accompanying traveling exhibit, Bittersweet Harvest (on the road since 2009 and scheduled up to 2018 due to popular demand).

Several things stood out to me about Dr. Loza’s project. Firstly, it’s a great example of a professional public history program with both a digital and a community outreach facet. Not only did she spend years collecting 800 oral histories and artifacts from a previously “invisible” population of migrant workers brought to the United States for the Bracero Program from 1942-1964, but she has made the primary source material available to anyone with an internet connection. The digital archive also allows for user-contributed items, to provide an opportunity for anyone to share their story. The traveling exhibit also sources from communities it passes through, allowing them to display their own artifacts alongside exhibit panels, ensuring its continued relevance wherever it travels.

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Juan Loza, “Instruction book page 1,” in Bracero History Archive, Item #584, http://braceroarchive.org/items/show/584 (accessed October 2, 2016).

But I was also impressed with how open Dr. Loza was about the emotional labor of the project. As she described in her presentation Friday in the Digital Scholarship Lab, being on the road and gathering stories was very hard work. Often the people she encountered had never been able to talk to anyone about their experiences before, and their emotional vulnerability came through in the oral histories that they shared with her. But on top of that, there was the complicating factor that some of the people she worked with were politically vulnerable as well- they had never become legal citizens and were understandably wary of her desire to hear their stories or scan their documents. For those people, giving an oral history was an act of great bravery. The trust they placed in her to bear witness to their histories was touching, but also emotionally charged. It’s a reminder that the subjects of public history are people with their own needs and concerns that must be considered any project. I know that this can make for rewarding work, but I also know that it can be emotionally tiring, and I hope that I can be prepared for that in the working world of the public historian.

She was also honest about the practical difficulties of the project. As it was grant-funded, there was a rush to record and digitize and get everything into the digital archive, but not enough time to transcribe and translate everything. The decision not to include specific objects to travel with the exhibition was also a difficult one, as was the process of choosing photographs to tell the story. She emphasized the importance of remaining flexible and adaptable in a project, a lesson which I personally constantly learn and relearn.

Case in point: this blog post, which is already over 800 words. I had planned to write a little about Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance presentation on Friday, but I think I’ll save that for another day, since I have a pile of unread books staring me down. Flexibility: a grad student’s best friend.

1 Comment

  1. Don’t worry about the Philly-centric nature of this project – you’re getting a crash course. The truth is that students who are familiar with Philly’s cultural scene are both at an advatange and disadvantage. You are getting the more common and perhaps useful experience for a public historian. You’re assigned a task with very specific parameters about which you only know a bit. And then you have 1) get up to speed, 2) figure out who should be at the table from scratch, and 3) start a conversation! Ug! Big and tricky stuff…but honestly, not as uncommon as we might hope. You’re off to a great start.

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