Our second guest is Seth C. Bruggeman, Associate Professor of History at Temple University. He is former director of the Center for Public History and currently serves as National Park Service Special Projects Coordinator for Temple’s University College. A graduate of the College of William & Mary’s PhD program in American Studies, Bruggeman studies the role of memory in public life, and particularly how Americans have used objects—in museums, historic, sites, and other commemorative spaces—to exert control over how we understand the past. His books include an edited volume, Born in the USA: Birth and Commemoration in American Public Memory (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), and Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument (University of Georgia Press, 2008).
Extreme though it may sound, I consider myself to be in the business of training culture warriors. It’s a notion that, for me, dates back to the summer of 1995 when I interned at the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture where, in many ways, my identify as a historian began to form. It was there, for instance, that I learned to do oral history, in part by listening to and processing recordings made by some of the nation’s most renowned folklorists. But at the same time that I was getting excited about oral history and the progressive commitments of the Archive and its staff, I was also strolling past the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum each day, where protestors flocked that summer around the new Enola Gay exhibit. And sometimes the other interns and I would spend lunch breaks watching congressional debate, which had become fevered amid the partisan rancor that would shut down the government just months later. I began to realize then that what I valued most about the Archive and, really, about history and the humanities, was far more vulnerable to the whims of politicians and private interests than I had ever imagined.
Now, amid ongoing assaults against public and higher education, and with the collapse of public funding for cultural nonprofits and even for the National Park Service, I’ve made it a goal to prepare students to be advocates, not just for their own work, but for the ideas and institutions that give that work meaning.
During high school I worked in an auto body shop and really enjoyed it, so much so that it wasn’t clear to me then that going to college was the right choice. In hindsight, of course, it was, but that job and several other stints over the years as a laborer and tradesperson have kept me honest about what I value and how I want to spend my time. I know, for instance, that I can’t be content spending the entirety of my days at a desk or behind a computer. And I get really restless when my daily orbit doesn’t extend beyond academia. So, even though I can’t always control my work life, having some self-knowledge goes a long way toward finding a workable balance.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
I get bored easily, so I try to keep a handful of long and short-term projects in motion concurrently. Right now, for instance, my long-term projects include a book about the history of American maritime museums, and an administrative history of the Boston National Historical Park commissioned by the Organization of American Historians / National Park Service collaborative.
Shorter-term projects include a guide to commemoration that I am editing for the American Association of State and Local History, and a grant proposal that aims to make non-traditional learning environments—e.g. machine shops, art studios, performance spaces—a regular part of humanities training at Temple. The project that I’m most excited about right now involves developing a degree program for our students that would lead to guaranteed job placements in the National Park Service. We do this now for law enforcement careers—a program called ProRanger—but my charge is to devise a parallel track for careers in heritage interpretation.
Why do you believe that the humanities are important to everyone, and not just people in academia?
This question always makes me think of Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi’s wonderful essay, “Why We Need Things,” which posits that humans constantly gather stuff so as to create order within our otherwise disorganized and drifting minds. We need things, because without some kind of external order, we lose ourselves. I think that’s true, but I’d also suggest that the humanities strengthen our ability to organize our own minds apart from the constant noise Csikszenthmihalyi equates with consumer culture.
Delving into the humanities shows us how to find beauty in surprising places, to see patterns across place and time, to be calm amid confusion. The humanities make us self-reliant, but also help us learn to share ourselves with others. They give us the confidence to confront a world wherein order of any kind is fleeting.
A lot of folks are surprised to discover that, despite my commitments to doing public history, I am terribly uncomfortable with being a historian in public. I despise public speaking, and although I do really love teaching, I rarely enjoy being in front of a crowd or in any other way being in the spotlight. I do, however, enjoy learning from people in the places where they live and work. This likely explains why so much of my public historical work has involved oral and/or institutional history. My students, on the other hand, are wonderfully confident public actors, and it gives me great joy to be among their audiences.
Thanks, Seth, for taking the time to share your insights about the humanities as well as what you're currently working on.
Check back next month for more Coffee & Questions. In case you missed Mary Rizzo's interview, click here.
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