Nome hosts conference of historians
The 2018 Museums Alaska and Alaska Historical Society’s joint conference held on Sept. 12 through 15 filled the town with historians from around the state. Close to one 125 of them joined another 50 people from the local area to listen to presentations from prominent historians, attend workshops, special events and board meetings, and explore Nome and the surroundings.
“We’ve been organizing the conference for about eight months now,” said Dr. Amy Phillips-Chan, Director of the Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum. Museums Alaska, the Alaska Historical Society, and Nome’s hometown museum were the planners. “Museums Alaska and the Alaska Historical Society were primarily responsible for recruiting all the presentations and organizing the sessions,” said Dr. Phillips-Chan. “The museum organized the space, the food, the tours, the special events. We’ve worked with over twenty local businesses and organizations across town who are providing everything from food and transportation and special events. It’s been a masterful organization project.”
The joint conference is held every other year in either Fairbanks or Anchorage where big facilities can accommodate the entire group at one venue. In Nome the participants shuttled between the Northwest Campus’ new Educational Center, The Richard Foster Building, and Old St. Joe’s. “Nome is a little more of a strategic challenge to piece all that together,” said Dr. Phillips-Chan. “We’ve been very fortunate to work with Northwest Campus and Bob Metcalf to utilize their brand new education center which has been perfect for holding our sessions.” Almost thirty sessions with over eighty presenters kept the conference participants busy throughout the four days.
Themes of the conference were “Relationships” for Museums Alaska and “Tundra & Ice: History in Alaska’s Arctic” for the Alaska Historical Society. Relationships focused on the complex interrelations of staff and board, working with communities, stakeholders, funders, and institutions. How can the value of those relationships be enhanced and propagated? There is much to study and discuss in the Arctic. “This year we look northward and contemplate ways to preserve our histories and share them with the world,” reads the introduction.
On Thursday night at the opening reception at the Richard Foster building the visitors heard welcoming speeches from local dignitaries, were fed some terrific food, and enjoyed a performance by the King Island Dancers and music by Landbridge Tollbooth.
The workshops included topics such as “Incorporating Indigenous Languages into Alaskan Museums,” “Duped by a Convict: How Lawmen Perished in the Kotzebue Gold Rush,” “The Discovery Saloon Building: A Link to Nome’s Gold Rush History.” The Discovery Saloon workshop was presented by Nome’s Carol Gales, who lives in the building and is actively restoring it. “Historic Bars of Nome” and “Scooping Up the Golden Sands: Ingenious Inventions and Jackass Machinery on the Nome Beach” were the titles of other workshops.
Thursday’s keynote speaker was Dr. Lorraine McConaghy, whose talk “Thinking about public history” addressed “whose stories are told, who tells them, to whom and how they are told.” Dr. McConaghy is a public historian in Seattle at the Museum of History and Industry and also at the Washington State History Museum. Public history is that which is practiced outside the ivied walls of academia. It actively engages the public to participate in the telling of history. Practitioners of public history are found in museums, theme parks and roadside attractions. “I think public history is a calling,” said Dr. McConaghy. “It’s not a fall-back position if you can’t get a job teaching.”
As she began her speech a woman in the audience rose and interrupted to say “I’m having a really hard time hearing you, I’m sorry.” The acoustics at Old St. Joe’s are sometimes a problem.
“To learn about the past and make the present make sense,” said Dr. McConaghy in describing the purpose of public history. “When the present makes some sense we can make better choices for the future. That to me is the heart and soul of history.”
She told about her education, how she felt she’d joined a monastery or a convent when she started grad school. She was being trained for academic work, “doing history at people, not with people.” She spoke of eliminating the word “audience” from the vocabulary and replacing it with “participant.” She said the digital humanities have opened up opportunities for people to claim their own past and the right to interpret it. Diaries, family photographs, and oral histories all matter. With broader participation a wider spectrum of history can be told. “History is dangerous. You know that if you’re doing public history, you’re on the front line of ideas. You’re on the front line of who owns the past. And what they do with it.”
On Friday Marieke Van Damme delivered the keynote, speaking on “The Joy In Our Work.” She is the executive director for the Cambridge Historical Society in Massachusetts and previously worked in collections management for the National Park Service in Sitka. She was also a VISTA volunteer in Alaska after finishing college.
While museum workers understand the positive impact their work has on their community and derive joy from it, the reality of the workplace can be difficult. Highly educated and motivated people toil for low pay, lack of benefits, lack of business structure, and other problems. Van Damme described ways she has found to put the upbeat and positive attitude back into the work environment for museum workers. She has an online presence with the website www.joyfulmuseums.com.
“This is a wonderful field to work in,” she said in her closing remarks. “We’re lucky to be able to educate the public and connect with history, culture, climate, and all of the world’s wonders and ideas. Creating a positive workplace environment is good and it’s necessary. It’s good for worker well-being, and it’s good for the organization’s bottom line. Whenever you can invest in it. Do not look for a shortcut. It takes resources but it pays off.”
“One thing great about this conference is we really tried hard to create experiences for participants,” said Dr. Phillips-Chan. There was a trip to Safety Roadhouse, helicopter tours, and Nome Discovery Tours. The visitors found the people of Nome to be friendly and interested in what the historians were gathering for. “We’re pulling it off I think, keeping people happy,” said Phillips-Chan.