The personal side of history

By Beth LaMontagne Hall
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Posted in: Campus News
Related: History, Humanities,

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John Cooper, a sophomore history major at UNH Manchester, is spending a semester interning at the Portsmouth Historical Society's John Paul Jones House researching and documenting information on African-Americans living in Portsmouth around 1800 that will later be incorporated into Portsmouth's Black History Trail. Here, John works with museum curator Sandra Rux. (Mike Ross/UNH Photographic Services)

What can a scrap of old wallpaper tell us about a home’s previous owners? How does a museum present controversial topics to visitors, even if the ideas may offend them? How does a musical instrument or a ring help us understand the lives of those who came before us?

A new series of one-credit courses being offered through the history program at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester aims to give students the tools to answers these questions.

“Part of making history relevant and getting students to engage in history is giving them opportunities to go and do history,” said Jessica Parr, adjunct history professor at UNH Manchester. “It’s not just studying John Adams and these big figures. It’s making more of a personal connection.”

This fall, Parr taught two one-credit courses focused on “public history,” a discipline that uses various ways to present stories from the past to the community. Public history is how most people interact with history, whether it’s visiting a museum or looking at old photographs. Public history also gets students more engaged in the subject and shows them there are career opportunities available in the field, said Parr.

“A number of these courses in public history are translatable to the humanities and social sciences. It opens careers in archivist work for people with science and business backgrounds, for example,” said Parr. “We’re getting students the background to give them a leg up on something they can do with their degree. It also gives students the chance to get hands on experience, and it’s the hands on experience that makes you competitive for the jobs.”

John Cooper, a sophomore history major at UNH Manchester, had plans to attend law school and become an attorney. He has been participating in a public history internship at the Portsmouth Historical Society’s John Paul Jones House this semester, researching and documenting information about African-Americans living in Portsmouth around 1800 that will later be incorporated into Portsmouth’s Black History Trail.

“After my work at the John Paul Jones House, as well as the various history courses here at UNH, my aspirations have somewhat changed,” said Cooper. He plans instead to get a PhD in history and would like to teach, either at the high school or college level.

John Resch, a professor of history at UNH Manchester who is overseeing Cooper’s internship, said academia isn’t the only career path open to students who take public history courses.

“When we talk about public history, we’re really talking about students thinking about going into careers where instead of being in the classroom, they think about using history in another sphere, the public sphere,” said Resch. This could include working for a city clerk’s office or the National Parks Service. “We are trying to expose students to this area of history that’s not as explicit.”

Parr, who earned a PhD in history from UNH, began the fall series with Material Culture, a class focused on how artifacts, such as a ring, clothing or architectural features, can shed light on the past. Students spoke with museum staff via Skype about a historic wallpaper cataloguing project that is a source for historians and interior designers, they discussed how to present sensitive subject matters to the public, and gained practical career skills, such as writing grants and cover letters.

The second class, Introduction to Archives, discussed the ins and outs of an archivist’s job, creating digital archives and the challenges of preserving documents. For students who do so much learning digitally, the class gave them exposure to preserving physical documents and ways to fight the decomposing effects of time, said Parr.

If interest in these public history courses continues, there are plans to offer more, which could also help students prepare for the public history Master’s Degree program at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and other programs, said John Cerullo, history professor and program coordinator.

“Right now, we are really just exposing students to the world of public history, and encouraging them to learn something about it,” said Cerullo. “If we have the success we hope to have, then I can envision four-credit courses on public history in the future.”