American Social History Project • Center for Media and Learning

Panel discussion: “Public History in New York City’s Cultural Life”

Published March 30, 2011
“Public History in New York City’s Cultural Life” panel
L-R: Suzanne Wasserman, Deborah F. Schwartz, Ron Grele, Dave Herman, Ruth Sergel, Oneka LaBennett

The American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning and the Gotham Center for New York City History co-sponsored a panel discussion on “Public History in New York City’s Cultural Life” at the City University of New York Graduate Center on Monday, April 6th. The event was held in memory of Adina Back, a historian, educator, and colleague who many at the ASHP knew personally. The evening’s five panelists represented an array of backgrounds, and each offered a unique approach to public history. All five panelists’ presentations suggested intriguing possibilities for engaging with local communities to shape and inform public history projects. Oneka LaBennett, research director for the Bronx African-American History Project, described the way her project works with students and academics at Fordham University to reach out to members of the community. Deborah F. Schwartz, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society, discussed her institution’s efforts to enlist Vietnam veterans and members of a Carroll Gardens parish to shape the Society’s exhibitions. Ruth Sergel, an artist and filmmaker, described how her desire to document personal responses to the events of September 11, 2001 led to her subsequent project, a yearly event commemorating the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Dave Herman gave an entertaining presentation about the City Reliquary, a small non-profit storefront collection he founded in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Ron Grele, the former director of the Columbia University Oral History Research Office, put the evening in perspective by reminding us that it is our task to complicate, rather than oversimplify, history for public consumption. The enthusiasm of the participants and the event’s large turnout despite the rainy April night suggested that public history is alive and thriving in New York, and that the role of public history in the city’s cultural melange is sure to grow as long as the city’s past continues to inspire new generations of scholars, historians, and artists and their audiences.

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