Capitalizing on the Region's Historical Assets

The following panel discussion took place during the Encyclopedia project’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, held April 16-17, 2009, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Additional comments are invited below.

The session began with an introduction from Howard Gillette, who spoke about the general goals of the Encyclopedia project and the role of civic investment and engagement within it. He emphasized the importance of collaboration across disciplines and state lines and the Encyclopedia’s potential to build on existing assets while also generating new initiatives and knowledge. Panel chair Steven Conn then introduced the panel and posed the question, “What are we doing here?” In response to his question, Conn spoke of the parallel flourishing of new scholarship on Philadelphia over the past twenty years and a civic and cultural renaissance that this project hopes to connect further. Conn also described the past’s ability to reflect on the present and inform the future and concluded with the hope that the Encyclopedia will be a resource that resonates with people in the present and shapes debates about the future.

The first speaker was Michael Coard from the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, who spoke about the President’s House project. Coard described the uniqueness of the President’s House site and Liberty Bell Center as a space where visitors must cross the “hell of slavery” into the “heaven of liberty” and addressed the importance of recognizing both sides of that story. To this point, Coard identified truth as the prime historical need and spoke of the power of projects in civic engagement and investment like the President’s House to challenge one-sided history and make the experiences of African Americans part of the larger narrative. Coard also described history as cultural ammunition and emphasized the importance of organization and mobilization to the President’s House project, which relied on vital contributions from groups like Ad Hoc Historians.

The next speaker was V. Chapman Smith from the National Archives, who spoke about National History Day. Chapman Smith encouraged the editors to hear the voices of students engaging in the process of history and consider how the Encyclopedia can be a resource for their studies. She identified institutional involvement in the schools as a vital need, particularly in terms of familiarizing students with the city’s resources and getting students to care about their communities. Chapman Smith described the growth of National History Day from 175 student participants to 1,000 in a five-year period, the importance of civic partnerships for judging and evaluation, and the ways in which their projects get students excited about Philadelphia and its history. Chapman Smith concluded with the proposal that the Encyclopedia gives students a voice by including their project work for National History Day as contributions.

Next to speak on the panel was David Young of Historic Germantown. Young began by underscoring the need to make history useful, especially when working within an at-risk community like Germantown. To this point, Young emphasized the importance of community connections and the reality that if Germantown fails as a community, none of its historic sites can thrive. He described house museums in particular as at a crossroads, in danger of becoming mausoleums and staking their sustainability on engaging the community. Here, Young detailed projects throughout Historic Germantown, from gardens and poetry to the History Hunters Youth Reporters program, that allow historic sites to work together and stretch site capacities and offerings. Working collaboratively, sites that previously welcomed fewer than 5,000 visitors per year now serve 60,000 through community use; such collaboration also has allowed sites to cultivate better services through coordination and cooperation. Young noted that, acting as a consortium, the sites of Historic Germantown have developed better interpreter frameworks and marketing, as well as pooled their resources by sharing staff. He observed that these strategies have spurred the creation of a Historic Germantown brand with stronger community awareness and common themes that define both the historic sites and the neighborhood as a whole. Finally, Young shared that Historic Germantown hopes to continue these developments and further galvanize the community’s sense of shared history with its Germantown Works project involving community history from the twentieth century.

The final speaker was Charles Hardy, whose website uses the more than 2,000 historical markers throughout Pennsylvania as a gateway to the state’s history. Hardy began by demonstrating the website’s three main components: “Stories from PA History,” a section of thematic articles; “Teach PA History,” a collection of lesson plans written by Pennsylvania teachers; and “Visit PA Regions,” a collection of tourism resources organized by region. The main feature of the site is “Stories from PA History,” whose thematic articles are arranged chronologically and include video footage, timelines, and bibliographies. There are thirty-six planned articles and the site is scheduled for completion in 2011. Hardy described the use of interactive, virtual tours and photographs to draw people in and emphasized the use of hyperlinks to allow visitors to link within and across stories. Hardy identified his project as a potential model and resource for the Encyclopedia’s web component, detailing its use of peer-reviewed documents on Philadelphia, average of 200 images per article, and direct links to collections, resources, and expertise from around the state. In terms of future developments, Hardy emphasized the need to bring the state’s historic markers into the twenty-first century, provide schools with good scholarship that promotes heritage tourism, and cultivate more institutional collaborations. He concluded by observing upon the site’s remarkable growth to 21,000 hits per month and its growing usage in area schools, as well as the rise of other states interested in developing similar websites.

Dialogue: Following the panel presentations, the discussion began with a question about the logistics of connecting institutional work with communities and students. Here, Chapman Smith cited the importance of eliminating hurdles that prevent people from participating in public projects and detailed her efforts to assuage any costs associated with National History Day, such as travel expenses. The discussion then turned to practical issues involving contributions to the Encyclopedia, such as the application of federal copyright laws, the right to ownership of contributions, and the logistics of work-for-hire. Here, participants also raised the issue of the Encyclopedia’s web component, questioning how much of the Encyclopedia will be web-based and debating how web-publishing might affect the quality of the material. Participants also cited the impermanence of the Web and the degree to which it is constantly evolving as a concern. Still, participants emphasized that the Encyclopedia ultimately must be useful and should include up-to-date scholarship, a mission that many saw as invaluably aided by a web component.

Please add to the discussion below.

Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy