American Association for State and Local History Meets in St. Louis
Debbie Ann Doyle, November 2004
The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) held its 64th annual meeting from September 29 through October 2, 2004, in St. Louis, Missouri. Approximately 800 historians attended, despite competition from the meetings of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Oral History Association, both scheduled for the same weekend. The theme selected for the meeting was "Exploring Resources for Growth."
The meeting opened with a reception at the Missouri History Museum, featuring the "Looking Back at Looking Forward" exhibit commemorating the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. At meeting sessions, public historians presented their work to their colleagues and discussed the intellectual challenges of interpreting the past for a wide audience. A session on responding to demographic change drew a standing-room-only crowd eager to discuss strategies for making museum programs more inclusive. Other sessions and workshops focused on practical issues such as building a donor base or managing a collection. Luncheons provided networking opportunities for directors, educators and interpreters, court and legal historians, and professionals employed in historic house museums and presidential sites and libraries. The AHA's Task Force on Public History sponsored two sessions, a discussion of how the recent historiography of the civil rights movement is being incorporated into museums and documentary films and a roundtable on confronting the state budget crisis. The latter built on a session at the 2004 AHA meeting and a May 2004 Perspectives forum.
The AASLH, like the AHA, is experimenting with ways to make its annual meeting more dynamic. The meeting's strength has been providing nuts-and-bolts training to administrators of historic sites, museums, and historic societies. In recent years, the program committee has added discussions of recent research and tried to encourage more audience participation. For the second year, the National Council on Public History cosponsored book discussions on subjects of interest to the membership. For example, historian David Glassberg (Univ. of Massachusetts at Amherst), author of Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life, led the audience in a discussion of the relationship between the myths and memories of the past that shape audience expectations and the interpretations crafted by professional historians. This year the program included a new "point-counterpoint" format in which two speakers presented opposing sides of a current issue before opening the floor for audience debate. At other sessions, audience members were encouraged to bring examples from their own professional experience to enrich discussion. For the first time, the meeting program, recordings of keynote speeches by Douglas Brinkley and Jon Kukla, and handouts from select sessions were placed on a CD-ROM that was distributed to all attendees. The disc will be available for purchase by those unable to attend the meeting.
At a meeting of the membership, outgoing chair Charles F. Bryan (Virginia Historical Society) argued that historic preservation, planning, and heritage tourism can protect both the economy and the unique identity of a community, concluding, to extended applause, that "investment in the past pays dividends … you are keeping the soul of your community, state, and nation alive." Terry Davis, president and CEO of AASLH, reported on two major new initiatives, a lobbying effort proposing new federal formula grants to help small, local museums, archives, and historical societies care for, preserve, and interpret their collections, and an incremental standards program designed to supplement the American Association of Museums' accreditation program. The membership chair reported that the AASLH now has approximately 6,200 members, a 20 percent increase over the last five years. At the end of the meeting, incoming chair David Crosson introduced four members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, who honored Bryan for his service to AASLH by singing a selection arranged by his late father.
Recipients of the AASLH awards for 2004 for excellence in books, exhibits, web sites, film, and educational programming were recognized at an awards banquet on Thursday evening. An exhibit describing winning entries was displayed in the exhibit hall. Awards are presented in two categories: awards of merit for excellence compared with nationwide standards for similar projects and certificates of commendation for "excellence within the context of available means and regional standards." See www.aaslh.org/cgi-bin/awards.cgi for a list of the award winners.
Tours and laboratories at local historic sites and institutions provided participants with a behind-the-scenes view of how colleagues are addressing issues of interpretation, audience, and resource management. For example, participants toured the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, which opened to the public in 1995 and is in the process of building a visitors' center and expanding its exhibits. Staff historians described their strategies for interpreting the complex history of slavery on the site to encourage visitors to think about the past in new and different ways.
The AASLH will hold a joint meeting September 21–24, 2005, with the Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations in Pittsburgh, focusing on the theme of "History's Mysteries." Submission forms are available at http://www.aaslh.org. The deadline for submissions is November 19, 2004.
—Debbie Ann Doyle staffs the AHA's Task Force on Public History and is a member of the AASLH Program Committee.