In memoriam: Raymond A. Mohl, past president of the Urban History Association and distinguished professor of history emeritus at the University of Alabama, Birmingham.
Ray Mohl was educated at Hamilton College, Yale, and NYU, where he earned his Ph.D. in History in 1967. He began as an early American historian and published his first book, a study of poverty and social welfare in early national New York City, in 1971. With it, Ray established his reputation as pioneering urban social historian. His interests in urban history broadened geographically and chronologically when he took his first tenure-track job, at Indiana University Northwest. There he delved into the history of the Rustbelt and retooled himself as a twentieth-century U.S. historian. He published two books on race and ethnicity in Gary.
After moving southward, first to Florida Atlantic University for twenty-six years, then to the University of Alabama, Birmingham, for nineteen years, Ray…
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Now this is living history I can get into… NY Times writer revisits the sights, sounds, and tastes of an early 19th c. French guide book, Almanachs des Gourmands, penned by Napoleonic-era aristocrat Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reynière. Some of the restaurants he lists are still around today.
In my “History and the Public” class we are always talking and thinking about ways to commemorate and mark and interpret places that aren’t there anymore, or how to link sites with a variety of interpretive strategies. The challenge: to think outside of the box about how we can mark and share history on any given landscape. Murals, playgrounds, parks, and other kinds of public art and installations are all opportunities to share history in ways that are more accesible and potentially meaningful than another museum exhibit.
Here’s an approach I hadn’t thought of and one I think is very cool: take saplings from the chestnut tree outside Anne Frank’s hiding place in Amsterdam and transplant them to other sites also associated with freedom of conscience and social justice. I love that one is Boston Common, associated with another kind of tree, the “Liberty Trees” created by early American revolutionaries. It would have been really cool if the sites chosen were all part of the “Sites of Conscience” network created by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum some years ago — it’s a truly global network– but then the Anne Frank House isn’t even a member of that. But they took applications from sites instead and all the sites seem to be in the US. But nevertheless it’s an interesting idea.
Here’s an upside to the recession for some… glad there’s some recompense for the manifold ways in which cultural non-profits are taking on the chin…
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an AP newsstory on the role that museums – some of my favorites – are taking on the immigration debate. http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/tx/6645764.html
Public history is a collective public narrative that commemorates and maintains stories about who we are as a people and involves the creation of a “usable past” that speaks to the present, emerging from a dialogic relationship between the legacies of the past, the struggles of the present, and the promises of the future.
The literary critic Van Wyck Brooks coined the term “usable past” in 1918 to codify the idea that a collectively recognized national past was necessary to imbue US artists with a sense of cultural tradition that was distinctly American. Thus was the term emergent from an American identity crisis, born of the historic cultural displacement of peoples and cultures in the “New World.” It’s interesting that this notion also emerged on the heels of a massive wave of immigration to the US from Europe, the Red Scare and a push for Americanization, and in the midst of US involvement in a massive European conflict.
Americans, with their penchant for self invention, are often said to have no sense of history. But we know form the work of Thelan and Rosenzweig, for example, that many people have or seek a personal relationship to the past through memories, ancestors, heritage, and other group identities. Individuals and groups have a stake in particular kinds of knowledge, politics, experiences that (in)form their perspectives on the past.
The idea of a “usuable past” has long fallen into disfavor for its essentialism among other things, but I’d like to resurrect it as a — well, usable — concept to the extent that it acknowledges our present investment in certain pasts and the way in which we understand history and its legacies for and from our own experience. I think it’s possible to do this strategically without being thoroughly presentist and without creating the master cultural narrative that the 20th century critics sought. Rather, we can think of the legacies of various pasts for our presents, of the manifold perspectives on history and the way in which individuals and groups invest in these perspectives, of history as a cacophony of stories that coalesce, in specific times and places, into narratives that make meaning in our own time.