Reflecting on repair: The 2019 Annual Meeting theme


2019 Annual Meeting program. Image credit: NCPH

Ideally, a conference theme is broad enough to encompass the breadth of a field, yet specific enough to create cohesion and perhaps spark new synergies and connections within that field. Seth Bruggeman and Cathy Stanton, Program Committee co-chairs for the 2019 NCPH Annual Meeting in Hartford, Connecticut, reflect on how this year’s theme of “Repair Work” was developed and how it has shaped the program.

CS: Seth, what did you initially find interesting about the idea of repair as a conference theme?

SB: I think in things. It’s just how my brain works. I won’t remember the title of a book I read last week, but I can tell you the sizes of all the various bolts that held my first car together. This way of thinking doesn’t fit very neatly into the academic world, and so to get by I’ve had to spend a lot of time translating between words and things. “Repair” interested me immediately because, as an organizational concept, it’s a great tool for describing these acts of translation: tweaks, alterations, and adaptations that make words and things co-operable.

And, in this sense too, “repair” helps me understand my commitments to public history. We are all translators, each of us tasked with designing the processes by which history gets made legible to no end of dissimilar people. Getting these processes working, patching them up, trying out new parts—all of this is what I enjoy about doing public history, and all of it inheres in repair work.

What about you, Cathy, how do you relate to repair work? What is it about repair that resonates so powerfully with public history?

CS: I’ve been thinking about repair in relation to public history ever since I read James Abrams’ essay “Lost Frames of Reference” as a grad student. He talks about “cultural repair workers” in projects throughout deindustrialized Pennsylvania, and it just made so much sense to me as a characterization of so much of what public historians get called on to do—to help reframe or reinvent or reinvigorate something (often something economic) that has lost momentum.

I think that’s different from your sense of repair as a kind of translation. This is more about attempts at transformation, which don’t always work and don’t always align with the specific values that historians bring to them. Lately, as I’ve watched public historians struggling with what role they should or can play within deeply fraught public and political processes, I’ve been thinking more about the notion of “repairing a broken world.” That’s a phrase that gets used in somewhat over-simple ways in the tech and innovation economy. But it also has deep civic and even spiritual resonances that seem very compatible with a careful contemplation of history.

What’s your sense of how these ideas (and maybe others) are reflected in the final conference program for Hartford?

SB: I suspect that attendees will immediately perceive a deep concern in the Hartford program to, as you put it, repair a broken world. Words like “resistance,” “justice,” “ethics,” and “owning up” run through our sessions. That they do, in my view, signals an overwhelming commitment among participants to understand public history’s positionality in today’s fraught cultural landscape.

The ongoing work of reframing public history’s origin story, for instance, will be on display in Hartford.  So will efforts to reimagine our field’s potential beyond the deep veins of white heteronormative privilege that still lurk in so much of our practice. I am particularly excited by the variety of session formats attendees will encounter in Hartford. We intend to do repair work, and the work that we do at NCPH becomes less and less passive each year. Attendees should expect to be engaged, productive, and reinvigorated!

Cathy, you mentioned James Abrams’ essay as a formative influence on your expectations of public history. Thinking about this year’s program reminds me of another essay that had a profound impact on my own work. In 2009, Ken Yellis suggested in his “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the Culture Wars” that beyond just convening discussions, museums had to also become culture warriors. The culture wars of the 1990s had eased, Yellis argued, but they’d be back before we knew it. A decade out, it’s hard not to see the wisdom in Yellis’ warning.

My sense from this year’s program is that I am not alone in having taken it to heart. I wonder though if, amid the violence that seems everywhere these days, war metaphors are really what we need right now. From the standpoint of program chair, what have you inferred about how public historians are responding to violence? What prospects might we have in Hartford for finding a new way forward?

CS: I’m heartened by the way that our 2019 program reflects a growing willingness to acknowledge structural forms of violence. There’s a track within the program that foregrounds histories of weapons and gun violence, linked with our conference location in the heart of the eighteenth and nineteenth century American gun-manufacturing industry. I’m excited about those sessions, which will include a public plenary session about the possibilities for interpretation at the new national park in the former Colt’s Manufacturing Company complex.

But beyond that more literal connection with the complicated legacies of guns in American culture, presenters across the program are raising good questions about entrenched disparities and exclusions and how those have led to the more visible flashpoints of conflict and resistance that are so often the focus of public historical work.

As we head toward NCPH’s 40th anniversary next year, I know that some public historians are questioning whether the field has become unmoored from its roots and fixated on the pressing issues of the moment. I prefer to think of it as public history truly starting to come of age. As a community of practice, I’d say that we’re getting better at embracing the implications and responsibilities of speaking clearly and critically about our understandings of what happened in the past and how the past continues to live on in the present. It’s never easy and it demands continual tinkering and translation with our methods and alliances. Our program for Hartford gives us an inspiring snapshot of that work in progress!

~ Seth Bruggeman is associate professor of history at Temple University and director of its Center for Public History.

~ Cathy Stanton is senior lecturer in anthropology at Tufts University and an active public historian.

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