AASLH Meets in Pittsburgh

Debbie Ann Doyle, December 2005

The American Association for State and Local History met in Pittsburgh September 21–24, 2005. Approximately 750 people attended the meeting, which was held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Federations of Museums and Historical Organizations.

For the first time, meeting attendees had the chance to donate their time and skills to colleagues in the local area. On Wednesday, September 21, volunteers spent the day painting, cleaning exhibits, and helping to organize collections at the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Museum of Rural Life, an archeological site and farm museum in Washington County, about an hour away from Pittsburgh. Although responding to Hurricane Katrina was not on the official program, throughout the meeting AASLH officers and members were at work organizing a disaster recovery team to travel to the affected areas to help colleagues at local museums, historic houses, historical societies, and historic sites survey the damage and help preserve and protect documents and objects damaged in the flooding or threatened by its aftermath. A volunteer recovery team organized with the American Institute on Conservation that departed for the affected areas on September 19 had to turn back due to Hurricane Rita. The AASLH will continue to coordinate recovery efforts for state and local history organizations affected by the disaster; see www.aaslh.org/katrina for additional information.

One of the most interesting and lively discussions at the meeting took place at a roundtable, "Training Public Historians: Academy and Reality," held on Thursday afternoon. Chair Benjamin Filene (Minnesota Historical Society) and discussants Rebecca Conard (Middle Tennessee State Univ.), John Dichtl (Organization of American Historians), Kathy Dummer (Historic Murphy's Landing), Melanie Sturgeon (Arizona State History and Archives Division) discussed the future of the field. Public history is now established in university programs, has its own historiography and journal (The Public Historian, published by the National Council on Public History), and is established as a significant subdiscipline within the discipline of history. Some panelists had graduated from public history programs, others from traditional academic departments, and all expressed interest in how the career paths of historians entering the field today might differ from their own. They raised several vital questions about the future of the field. Are public history programs moving toward the same credentialing role played by academic PhD programs? If so, is that good for the profession? What role does it leave for the dedicated historians with little graduate training who run many small local museums and other historic sites? How can public history programs prepare students for a job market that is always changing in response to funding changes, technological advances, and shifting audiences? How can programs provide students with the necessary "tool sets" for an unstable job market? What is the relation between academic public history programs and those working in the field? What percentage of faculty teaching public history have practical experience as working public historians? How does this affect the training faculty provide their students? Could the job market in public history might soon be as tight as the job market in academe? The session began a sobering but crucial conversation that should continue.

Representatives of small museums and historic sites from around the country attended a banquet on Saturday evening where the AASLH and PFMHO recognized recipients of awards for excellence in publications, programs, preservation, and exhibits. The meeting theme—"History's Mysteries"—was reflected in the choice of keynote speaker Tony Tackaberry, executive produce of the PBS series, History Detectives. Plenary speaker Rick Sebak, a producer for WQED Multimedia in Pittsburgh, spoke about the role of local history in his series of documentaries on Pittsburgh history and American popular culture.

The AASLH meeting encourages attendees to learn about the chief issues and concerns in interpreting the history of the meeting site through numerous tours and off-site receptions. This year, AASLH members visited Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob; enjoyed receptions at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center and Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, and the Frick Art & Historical Center (home of controversial steel executive Henry Clay Frick). Walking tours explored the city's ethnic neighborhoods and architecture, while the "Born of Fire" tour sought out the region's industrial heritage through a visit to the remains of the Homestead Steel Works (now part of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area) and a collection of artistic representations of the steel industry at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. It was a fascinating opportunity to consider the complexities of interpreting the contentious history of American industrial development for a public audience and the challenges of preserving and interpreting enormous artifacts such as those associated with the steel industry.

—Debbie Ann Doyle is the AHA's public history coordinator; she was a member of the AASLH Program Committee.