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.

About historicalhorizons

The blog of the Calvin College History Department
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