Going Public

by Kate van Liere.
Group of students standing in the snow near a historic house museum sign.

History 293 students left the classroom behind to explore local public history.

Crowd of students in a local museum

Visiting Lowell Area Historical Museum

This January the Calvin history department launched a new course, Public History, which we intend to continue as regular offering. If you wonder just what “public history” means, you’re not alone. It’s a confusing label for an important phenomenon. It generally denotes pursuits that fall outside of so-called “traditional” or “academic” history. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War, and the “Life of the Mind” exhibit that just closed at the Grand Rapids Public Museum are fine recent examples. (One could certainly cite bigger and better-known museum exhibits, but “Life of Mind” earns precedence here, as the brainchild of three Calvin history majors.) In a way, using the term “public” to distinguish between non-academic history and academic history is misleading. Good academic history certainly has an important “public” aspect; it often aims to reach a wide audience or to engage questions about public life or the public good, or both. Few traditional historians would want to label what they do “private history.”

Yet traditional history, as taught in most of our classes at Calvin, does revolve largely around a very private activity: reading. We read and interpret sources, and we write down our stories and arguments in articles, essays, or books, which we write for an imaginary reader. Even if we’re optimistic and hope to reach a huge audience, we tend to envision this audience as a long series of individual readers. So one way to think about “public history” is that it intentionally addresses an audience that is more collective than individual, and with other media than just the written word. It comes out of the classroom and off the page, into some other arena—whether a theater, a museum, a living historic site, or a public park.

Students in a museum storage room near a historic car.

Behind the scenes tour with Grand Rapids Public Museum curator (left).

Students in a museum storage room.

Visiting GRPM storage rooms.

Multi-media presentation and broad outreach are no means new to our department. Many of our classes and programs have reached out in “public” directions, from Prof. Bert DeVries’s Umm el-Jimal Project in Jordan, to Prof. Frans van Liere’s Indian Mounds oral history project, to the GR Walks tours created by students in Prof. Kristin Du Mez’s social history classes. For many years our majors have pursued internships at the Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM) and the Gerald R. Ford Museum. Since 2014 we have added many more local institutions to the list, including the Historical Societies of Lowell, Kentwood, and Cascade, and the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council. Since 2015 all of our majors have produced museum exhibit proposals for the GRPM as part our Research Methods class. But we have never had a single course that focused solely on “public history.” As more and more of our graduates explore careers in museum work and related fields, we noticed increasing interest in such a course. The first iteration this January was a joy to teach, and it also produced some outstanding student work that we hope will attract a broad audience of its own.

The course had three main components: a series of field trips to local institutions that “do history” in non-academic contexts; an in-class historical reenactment game about the controversy over creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; and a hands-on project that had students design and create their own small-scale history exhibits on Calvin’s campus. The field trips took us to eight sites in all, from Calvin’s own Heritage Hall on the first day, to the Gilmore Car Museum near Kalamazoo on the last. We focused heavily on vocation, meeting curators who took us behind the scenes, showed us how collections are created, preserved, and exhibited, and explained their own diverse career paths into public history.

We learned about the complex partnerships between public and private interests that sustain museums (even such “public” institutions as the Gerald R. Ford Museum and the Grand Rapids Public Museum relying heavily on private sponsorship), and the delicate political balancing that these partnerships require. We learned about the sometimes explosive politics of historic preservation, while walking the Heartside Historic District with a preservation consultant who helped to create it. We witnessed the indispensable role of volunteers in a range of diverse places, from the 19th-century towns of Lowell and Fallasburg, whose historic sites are sustained almost entirely by volunteers, to the well-endowed Gilmore Museum, where a veritable army of volunteer interpreters supplements one of the largest paid museum staffs in Michigan. We also learned, more poignantly, about the struggles of small museums-in-the-making like the GRAAMA, which was on the agenda for our first trip downtown, but could not open for us as planned when its one-man staff had car trouble.

“The History of Throwing” exhibit

Students examine the exhibit they created.

“Celebration & Foundation: 1876”

Another question animating our field trips was: what makes a history exhibit compelling, educational, and attractive? After reflecting on these questions in class discussions and journals, students put their conclusions into practice in their final project, designing and producing display-case exhibits in teams of four. In just three weeks they produced some deeply impressive exhibits. We’re very grateful to the colleagues across campus who made spaces and artifacts available. One project, housed in the foreign language department, chronicled the career of Cuban immigrant Desi Arnaz and his influence on American culture. Unfortunately this exhibit recently came down, but the other four will remain on display through February and possibly longer. “The History of Throwing,” on the lower floor of the Spoelhof Fieldhouse Complex, juxtaposes artifacts from Calvin’s own track and field team with images from earlier eras to trace the story of these sports from antiquity to the present. (This will probably be the next to be dismantled, as the track and field team will soon need to reclaim the javelin and discus for the spring season!)

Students point to the exhibit they created.

“Our Horizon Grows Smaller: Dr. Lee S. Huizinga and the Chinese Civil War”

Students show off the exhibit they created.

“The Times They Are a-Changin’: Calvin College Fifty Years Ago”

The other three exhibits are installed on the main floor of Hekman Library. “Celebration & Foundation: 1876,” by the main entrance, colorfully interweaves local and national stories, recalling 1876 as the triply memorable year of Calvin College’s foundation, Grand Rapids’s 50th anniversary, and the centennial of the U.S.A. Two other exhibits, thanks to the generous cooperation of Heritage Hall’s new archivist Denice Fett, display some of the rich resources of Heritage Hall, the archive of Calvin College and the Christian Reformed Church. “Our Horizon Grows Smaller: Dr. Lee S. Huizinga and the Chinese Civil War” tells the compelling story of the medical missionary for whom Huizinga residence hall is named, featuring maps, letters, and commemorative objects from his life. “The Times They Are a-Changin’: Calvin College Fifty Years Ago” looks back at 1968 as a tumultuous year in Calvin’s history. It too features riches from Heritage Hall’s own collection, including photographs, clothing, and issues of both Chimes and The Spectacle, the protest newspaper edited by Jeannine Oppewall and Paul Schrader. This exhibit features particularly impressive research, including interviews with multiple alumni from the class of ’68. Rumor has it that some class members have requested that the exhibit remain up until their 50th reunion in May, and we hope their request will be granted. The other displays may not last quite that long, so go and see them while still you can. We think you’ll be impressed.

Kate van Liere is a historian of early modern Europe, with particular interests in Spain, intellectual and religious history, and historiography. She has edited a collection of essays about Christian historical writing in Renaissance Europe. She also teaches in the Spanish and Dutch departments at Calvin and previously directed Calvin’s Rhetoric Across the Curriculum program.

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Building Community among the Ruins

by Frans van Liere.
Three men break for tea next to an ancient stone wall ruin.

Tea break at Umm el-Jimal, with Bert (left), Muaffaq, and a local laborer.

In my last entry for Historical Horizons, I wrote about how archaeology can be a tool for colonialism. For the Palestinian inhabitants of the village of Silwan, the Israeli archaeological park of the “City of David,” situated right in their West Bank village, bears a clear message: you don’t belong here; “we” were here first (“we” meaning the Jewish settlers). Archaeology involves the present as much as the past. In Silwan, it disempowers the local residents in the interest of more powerful rivals. But archaeology can also be used to empower the residents of an excavation site. An inspiring example can be found in Calvin College’s archaeology program’s excavations at Umm el-Jimal, in northwestern Jordan. My colleague Bert de Vries has directed excavations at this site since 1972, and has led numerous Calvin students on summer field work here. Last summer I had the opportunity to visit it for the first time.

I visited in July 2017, while I was teaching a Latin course in at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. On my first weekend in Israel, I rented a car and headed first in the direction of the Dead Sea, and from there north through the Jordan River valley. The border crossing near Beit She’an was said to be the easiest way to cross into Jordan, with no visa required in advance, and with relatively short waiting times. Of course, I had to leave my rental car parked at the Israeli side of the border. Several long lines and passport stamps later, I was met on the Jordanian side of the border by Bert.

Umm el-Jimal, whose original name is unknown, was built by Nabatean people in the first century CE. In Roman times it was a frontier town, with a small castellum.  By the sixth century, it had become a thriving Byzantine city, owing its economic importance to the proximity of the Sassanid Empire. Interestingly, the conquest by the Muslims, after the Battle of the Yarmouk River in 636, not too far from Umm el-Jimal, does not seem to have changed life for its inhabitants dramatically. The town continued to flourish, until roughly the ninth century, when it was abandoned. Despite a brief period of resettlement under the Mamluks in the thirteenth century, it became a field of ruins, until it was reoccupied in the nineteenth century by a Druze community. After the Druze left, the ruins became a dwelling for a Bedouin tribe, until the Jordanian Law of Antiquities forbade such use in 1972. The ruins were fenced off, and the Bedouins resettled in the nearby village that is the present-day town of Umm el-Jimal.

Although the site was surveyed in 1905 and 1909, systematic excavations of the site did not begin until the 1970s, under the direction of Bert de Vries. Bert did not see the Bedouin as a tribe to be displaced from their surroundings. On the contrary, he worked closely with the local community, often employing men from the village to do some of the excavations. During my visit, I met with Muaffaq Hazza, who grew up in Umm el-Jimal and is now a member of the core staff of the archaeological team, working on an MA in archaeology.

Water is of vital importance in this arid region; ancient Umm el-Jimal flourished thanks to an ingenious water collection system, which stored the run-off from rain storms in the hills in underground cisterns. Bert and his field team not only excavated these cisterns, but oversaw a plan to restore them to their original use, hoping that these underground water storage facilities would benefit the local population in agricultural endeavors. Calvin’s archaeology students are currently alongside Calvin engineering students and the Clean Water Institute of Calvin College to realize what is known as the “Umm el-Jimal water project.”

Umm el-Jimal is not contested terrain like East Jerusalem. But it plays its own part in the upheavals of the modern Middle East. What was once a border town between the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires is still an important border crossing. Across the road from Umm el-Jimal, the refugee camp of Al Zaatari reminds the visitor that the political situation in this part of the word is volatile. It houses thousands of refugees that are displaced by the Syrian civil war. The camp has no wells, and water needs to be carted in by the truckload. What if the Umm el-Jimal water project can serve to provide water for the camp? Can the desert be made to bloom? The Umm el-Jimal water project shows how an archaeology program at a Christian college can help to serve the God who “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, to give them food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18), by not engaging in divisive identity politics, but instead by building community and being a force for good. As I said goodbye to Bert a few days later, about to cross the border on my way to Jerusalem, I was reminded of how proud I was to work in the same department as Bert and the many students who he not only taught how to do archaeology, but also to be better citizens in God’s Kingdom.

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two teenage sons, and a cat named Lancelot.

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Moments in History

by Bob Schoone-Jongen.

During September 1974 President Ford pardoned President Nixon of all the crimes he committed while in office. This ended two things: Nixon’s legal problems and Ford’s reelection hopes. Today we know two other things: Nixon died reviled; Ford died a profile in courage. History changes things. The Wall no longer divides Berlin, Mao Zedong lies under glass, cigarette smoke no longer belches from school faculty rooms, newspapers no longer need paper, computers fit in the palm of a hand, and transistor radios are museum exhibits. Cars are more efficient, microwave ovens ubiquitous; television screens are HD, and the BBC News arrives via internet instead of shortwave. Through it all, yours truly has been teaching, as the history book sprouted more chapters.

A lot has happened in 43 years. And much has changed, including me. Over those years there have been personal Pearl Harbors, events that marked sharp turns in the stream of time. There was Harold, who came from a troubled home and learned almost nothing historical during that first year—except one thing: the British forced the Chinese to import opium in the 1840s. Harold found that absolutely wrong, and he was right. But that day Harold taught me this: given enough time, I could help someone see the difference between justice and injustice. I could teach.

Another Pearl Harbor moment came decades later upon starting graduate school after years of being a high school teacher. Being twice as old as my fellow students, I knew far less than half of what they did about ideas and themes from French philosophers. Without those ideas I could only flail, while they discussed. Having been the sage of my old classroom for decades had come with a heavy price—ignorance. The world of ideas had moved; I hadn’t. I needed to learn.

But there have been Appomattox moments as well—watersheds when clearly one era ended and another began. Leaving Minnesota for Michigan fit the bill. Walking through that empty house where we’d lived for years, and two sons had grown and left—words failed, but not emotions. I would never pass that way again. A few days later a platoon of historians unloaded the furniture into another house—not quite a Pearl Harbor moment, but a change, nonetheless.

Another Appomattox approaches. After thousands of attempts to teach history the right way, I can stop trying to make the next class better than the last one, because the last one has arrived.  I end knowing I could have, should have been better. So, I am left with “pretty good” as the final evaluation, the best a Minnesota exile can hope for, I guess.  Divine intervention postponed this last class for two years. Two years ago, during a prolonged Pearl Harbor experience, I prayed for just one thing amid two heart operations separated by a month of pneumonia—to teach one more time. Then, I got greedy and seized a second one—this year.

The thing I have enjoyed the most as a teacher, and will likely miss the most, has been the chance to show this world’s Harolds that despite all the bad that engulfs us, good will win in the end. We are surrounded by glimpses of that good, when we look and listen for these glimmers of God. The night I prayed for another chance to teach, I heard one of those glints emanating from what is now a technological relic—my iPod Nano: Haydn’s Creation’s high point, “The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God.” That’s what I wanted to teach. There is harmony. Things will end in a major key. All the voices and instruments will form a grand, final chord. It will be an Appomattox moment like no other.

I have been blessed to bob along in the swirling eddies of history’s current, with my head just far enough above the surface to get a glimpse of what is happening in the wake of what happened before. I have been honored to be heard by students as they eddied along with me for a few moments, before we parted ways—into the deep current, or toward the shore, or into the rapids.

There’s a river called Appomattox, more of a brook, actually. But its current and eddies contribute to something much larger, the Chesapeake Bay. I hold no illusions about my influence in the cosmic scheme of things. Some encounters left dents; others had no discernable effect. Sometimes they created lasting bonds and sometimes they split atoms, with the inevitable result. My hope is I have left more light than heat trailing behind.

Living with the past has been my joy, and my life. Appomattox moments surpass the Pearl Harbors. And the stream flows on. Lincoln and FDR have been my companions, alongside real estate agents, rogues, railroaders, baseball players, immigrants, Sir Thomas More, and a few doomed ships’ captains. We all jointly bobbed toward the Chesapeake for a few moments. I hope that there were times when the students saw in those moments the glimmer ahead glinting just a bit brighter. Thank God, I know I did.

Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his fourteenth year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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