Public History Initiative launches at Cornell

A new Public History Initiative (PHI) launched this fall at Cornell with two new courses and a lecture series. It is directed by Stephen Vider, assistant professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences, who came to Cornell as part of CIVIC (Critical Inquiry into Values, Imagination and Culture), the provost’s Radical Collaboration initiative focused on the humanities and the arts. The PHI is part of CIVIC’s Humanities, Arts and Public Life project.

Students in Stephen Vider’s Introduction to Public History course visit the Johnson Museum of Art.

“Public history is any form of historical engagement that occurs outside of the traditional classroom, including monuments, museums, oral history, historical preservation, walking tours, media and performance,” Vider explained. “Our initiative aims to stimulate new conversations about the sedimented histories that shape our contemporary world.” Vider brings to Cornell a wide range of experiences in public history, including curating exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York and developing a walking tour of LGBTQ+ life in downtown New York for the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The first PHI class, Introduction to Public History, is a core course introducing students to major theories and methods of public history practice. This semester, the class has toured the History Center of Tompkins County and Cornell’s Rare and Manuscript Collections. Later this term, the class will visit the new Johnson Museum exhibit, “how the light gets in.” For their major class project, the students will develop their own exhibits, based on materials in Cornell’s Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Next semester, Vider will teach a seminar called Making Public Queer History, which will trace the emergence of LGBTQ+ public history and the ongoing political stakes, including why LGBTQ+ history matters and what the particular challenges are for tracing LGBTQ+ histories.

“I’m excited to be developing the initiative because I believe public history can provide students a pathway into thinking about the methods and stakes of history more broadly,” said Vider. “That includes asking how do we know what we know about the past, and why does it matter? Whose histories are privileged and silenced? And how can public history help us to better understand society and politics today?”

Vider’s goals for PHI include oral history undergraduate fellowships; an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in public history focusing on questions about public history, popular memory and the built environment; as well as a graduate certificate in public history.

The PHI lecture series, sponsored by the Department of History, will begin this fall with two talks by leading scholars who will share their research as well as their experiences in community engagement.

The first, on Oct. 29 at 4:30 p.m. in 366 McGraw, features Yasmin Ramirez, an art worker, curator and writer based in New York City. Her talk, “The Revolution Will Not Be Aestheticized (Too Much): Some Lessons Learned From Memorializing the Art and Activism of the Young Lords Party,” looks at the art and activism of the Young Lords Party in New York, a radical community group that drew international focus to campaigns for social justice by Puerto Ricans and other peoples of color in the 1960s and ’70s. Ramirez will discuss her work developing two recent exhibitions on the history of the Young Lords Party and explore the challenges and rewards involved with exhibiting radical history in mainstream institutions.

The second talk, on Nov. 7 at 4:30 p.m. in 366 McGraw, features architecture historian Amber Wiley from Rutgers University. “Setting the Standard: Challenges to Equity in Landmark Designation” will explore recent case studies of national and local landmark designation that have challenged the notion of “standards” in relation to traditional historic preservation practice. Wiley will highlight two projects she has worked on in Washington, D.C.: the fight to preserve Barry Farm Dwellings, a World War II-era public housing project, and updating documentation on the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site for the National Park Service.

Wiley’s talk is co-sponsored by the Department of City and Regional Planning in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning.

Linda B. Glaser is news and media relations manager for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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