Last week, Know History associates ventured to Las Vegas to attend the Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH). The NCPH is a vibrant network of professionals, scholars and practitioners who put history to work in their communities. We encountered preservationists and curators, community historians and educators, archivists and archaeologists. Know History also sponsored a lively ‘Consultants’ Speakeasy,’ where historical consultants from Canada, the United States and beyond gathered to share stories, ideas, and best practices. On the final day of the conference, we were especially excited to watch as our Director Ryan Shackleton received an honourable mention for the Excellence in Consulting Award for our work on the Métis Nation of Ontario’s Root Ancestors project. Congratulations, Ryan!
As you can imagine, our four days of conferencing and exploring Las Vegas were quite a whirlwind. Here are just a few highlights from associates Nick Bridges, Tom Van Dewark and Jesse Robertson.
Nick – I attended the session “South African Recovery from Cruel pasts: Using Creative Arts to Visualize Alternatives,” run by the organization Isikhumbuzo. Isikhumbuzo’s performers are using the medium of dance and poetry to engage with and teach indigenous history in their local community in Grahamstown, South Africa. While the organization has a number of different projects around the city, they took the time to show us acts from a dance/poetry driven play. The story was about a Xhosa man who became a servant under the Grahamstown Governor to free his mother from slavery, in the wake of the British conquest of Grahamstown, 1812-1819. The performers used pantsula dance to tell the story, narrated by portions of poetry. Importantly, the Isikhumbuzo team has given portions of the play to different neighbourhoods and used that audience feedback to change aspects of their performance; the work is truly community driven and inspired. The story was powerful and brought emotion into teaching history. Isikhumbuzo’s session got me thinking about how theatre can be used to bring history to life for an audience and, in terms of public engagement, is just as strong a tool as any museum exhibit.
Tom – As a second time NCPH attendee, I was impressed with how the selection of tours, workshops, and roundtables continues to evolve. An impactful example of this was the hands-on and interdisciplinary “Lessons from Art and Design for Public Historians”. During this session, participants worked in small groups to explore how a diverse range of disciplines can co-produce and share knowledge while designing project proposals. Guided by facilitators from Greenhouse Studios my group was led through an art and design based approach to project collaboration. I must admit that I was initially skeptical about how this process could be applied to my own client-driven work in the private sector. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see how wrong I was in this assumption. By employing Greenhouse Studios’ inquiry-driven, collaboration-first, project design method we were able to blend academic history, social justice, art, and community engagement. The final product was a project proposal which I never would have conceived of prior to participating in this workshop. I came away from the experience excited to see how these approaches can be applied to future projects at Know History.
Jesse – I was lucky to attend a field session at the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. I learned about the community of St. Thomas, which was submerged in the rising waters of the Lake Mead reservoir in the 1930s. After decades of drought, the remains of St. Thomas are once again above the water line. This has created a set of challenges for heritage professionals at the state and federal levels, who must find new ways to monitor the site and prevent looting. The story of the Hoover Dam and St. Thomas was particularly interesting for me given Know History’s previous work researching hydroelectric development in Northern Manitoba. The projects were established decades apart, but the parallels were striking, and the consequences far-reaching. Finally, while I enjoyed the lights and sounds of Vegas, I was grateful for an opportunity to escape into the breathtaking expanse of the surrounding Mojave Desert. It’s well worth the trip, if you’re ever in the neighbourhood.