I have one of those sweet day jobs where I don’t generally have to be anywhere on Fridays. I schedule all the stuff of life outside the workplace in that day—dentist appointments, therapy, trips to the aquarium to avoid the stickiness of that place on the weekends—but sometimes that pesky work thing shoves itself in my Friday face. That’s what happened a couple Fridays ago when I had to be at the Maryland Historical Society by 8:30 a.m.—ungodly, if you ask me.
Thing is, though, my job also means that this year’s Bmore Historic Unconference is as much a field trip as a work obligation, and I got to spend the day sharing equal parts curiosity and righteous indignation with a wide swath of Baltimore-area history buffs, museum professionals, preservationists, students, and nerds as we asked those good questions of what counts as history, whose histories matter, and what the heck we should do with them.
Baltimore’s economic base is increasingly built on the unsteady foundation of tourism. Once the steel mills and canneries and railroad hubs are gone, what’s left is the empty shells of those buildings, awaiting their turn for condo-fication, if they’re lucky, and the history that can be dusted off put on display for visitors who will hopefully buy a souvenir and stay for lunch, spending the money the city needs to stay afloat. This model means, for example, that the largely forgotten War of 1812 becomes an extravagant years-long celebration, heavy on the funnel cakes, light on the history, in spite of the efforts of public historians to add a little education in the mix.
This is a cynical view—and one I’m often staring at as I watch one neighborhood after the next be gussied up for people who don’t live here. But in my better moments I know that this view fails to see the uses of history to make arguments for a better present. Local history can move beyond a crass materialism and toward enhancing life in Charm City, beyond the collection of tax dollars. Several sessions focused on historical preservation of urban renewal projects. It’s too late to save the Mechanic Theater, but is McKeldin Fountain beyond saving? Who would we save it for, and why? Participants argued that the fountain is worth preserving not just as an example of brutalist architecture, but as a vital site of free speech in the city as well as a site of youth gathering, from Otakon and Bronycon’s yearly crowds to the daily skateboard kids who take it over. The question for these historians is less about how this space makes money or draws tourists, and more how the space makes place for so many Baltimore constituents.
This is just one example of the kinds of historical conversations that we took up that day in advance of the promised beer at the end. Another session asked how museums can build a membership base of people who are genuinely active participants in the institution, not just passive purchasers looking for 10 percent off at the gift shop. Others gathered to talk about ways to make museums relevant to diverse communities, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because without a multitude of voices, Baltimore’s history is reduced to the loudest voices that promise to bring in the most money rather than a complex story of people who for whom the past continues to shape the present.
Other sessions served as skill-building workshops in oral history, DIY genealogy, connecting youth to history and heritage issues, and how to use open-source web resources to curate online archives and collections. Eli Pousson from Baltimore Heritage shared its Explore Baltimore Heritage app that allows users to pull up historic photographs and narratives of sites all over the city from their smartphones. Drawing on her work in oral history as part of University of Baltimore’s Baltimore ’68 project, Elizabeth Nix led a packed workshop on how to do oral histories. Participants shared their ongoing Baltimore-based projects gathering the stories of such wide-ranging groups as veterans, LGBTQ people, youth, elders, laborers, suburbanites, and alt kids. These projects hope to bring out the many different and diverse ways that people have made Baltimore home.
And then Ruby grant award-winning artist Graham Coreil-Allen took a bunch of us on a walk as part of his New Public Sites tour-guide project. The tour was of our own making, and we each picked up a souvenir, or what he calls a “shard of site,” to mark our visit. A severed Barbie doll head and legs, a ripped corner of an arrest report, expired light-rail tickets, an empty liquor bottle, and crisp fallen leaves were all brought back to the museum and laid out so we could narrate how our perspective as tourists shaped what is usually ignored trash into reminders us that life goes on, history is made. Like any good field trip, I was reminded that what is meaning all depends on how you look at it.
The overarching question of how to use history lingered. Baltimore has real examples of public history making important interventions in how the city develops. For example, activists pressed the case that Fells Point’s history demanded preservation, and we can thank those activists for the part where there isn’t a highway cutting right through there. At the same time, that activism helped drive up property values and then taxes, driving the longstanding immigrant working-class communities out of their neighborhood. The use of history remains a question not just of tourism or niche interest, but of social justice: Who tells the stories of Baltimore, and how will they matter?