ICYMI: NHPC Camping Con, “Outside Public History”

Our ICYMI series provide summaries of presentations, publications, webinars, and other educational opportunities that are of interest to I&A members. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. The following is from I&A Steering Committee member Stephanie Bennett, Collections Archivist, Wake Forest University.

This past fall, I spent a long weekend, 2016 October 7-9, at a National Council on Public History camping conference in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the theme “Outside Public History.” It was a conference focused on public history in the outdoors, in honor of the National Parks centennial, aimed at discussing “issues related to historic and contemporary public history as it took/takes place in outdoor leisure spaces.” Notably, this was a *camping* conference – we all slept in tents at a couple of group campsites in GSMNP – for those familiar with the park, in its Cades Cove area.


Many of my archives colleagues across America have spoken highly of NCPH annual conferences, so I was excited to be able to attend an NCPH event. This conference had a lot of pros for me: it was local-ish – a less than  6-hour drive; gave me an opportunity to engage with historians, which as Collections Archivist is a treat; focused on physical spaces, which I’m into and which I think we could do more with given our collections related to the University and Baptist churches; involved campfire and s’mores; and as a bonus, was very reasonably priced. So I packed up my tent, sleeping bag, and a cooler (to be stored in a car because BEARS), and headed to Tennessee. I was able to carpool with a group of graduate students from NC State, one of whom was my tent mate for the weekend, and heard about their scholarship, interests, and music tastes (#Hamiltunes).

The conference was really excellent. It was small – about 45 people, I believe – so we were able to meet and hear from almost everyone there. We were all there together, so we were all equally damp, unshowered, and attired; it leveled the playing field in ways that normal conferences cannot. Dinners were provided but we brought our own breakfasts and lunches, often sharing among the group. In the mornings and at breaks, we drank coffee and tea fresh from the camp stoves in our own cups. Most sessions involved taking in the scenery in short walks.

As with most conferences, I didn’t attend a session that I didn’t like. On Friday, Brian Forist, a PhD student at Indiana University, gave a talk on “two-way interpretation” (basically, how parks share historical and natural information) that had me thinking about the way we present information in archives. Do we leave room for a variety of understandings, or do we put non-factual information in a way that makes it seem more factual, set in stone? Interpretation literature might be of interest to archivists exploring that aspect of our field.

I also loved hearing about what archival information people were using and how they were finding those materials. One of the NC State graduate students, Derek Huss, had studied Appalachian Trail Conservancy newsletters looking at 1970s thru-hikers experience of the trail, and others’ perception of them. If those newsletters were digitized using OCR, Derek or others would be able to perform an in-depth textual analysis of the newsletter’s presumed change in tenor over time.

For those of us very engaged in improved diversity and inclusion in our communities, Saturday night’s keynote is of interest. Led by Dr. Tamaria Warren, an environmental specialist for the US Army, we discussed Dr Carolyn Finney’s book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors and how that affects us all, as individuals and in our professional pursuits. Dr. Warren discussed her research into African-American perceptions of environmentalism in Detroit and Columbia, SC, as well, which was really interesting. When you hear the world “environmentalist,” what comes to mind? And what can we learn from those preconceptions in order to communicate better about environmental pursuits?

Again, the nature of campsites allowed these conversations to be open – although (as a quick-to-talk person, I’m always thinking about this) probably more could have been done to encourage the quieter folks to speak up. The small size also allowed us to really see each other, break bread, talk s’more innards (Reese’s cups are not to be trusted, I don’t care what anyone says) and history, public spaces, new theories, etc. I was amazed at how many attendees were first-time campers; struggling with gear, talking about leave no trace practices, and shared dampness were good icebreakers.

On a personal, smaller note: I became really aware of how much one person can save with reusable utensils, mugs, plates, and napkins. I am now more committed to traveling with a mug, water bottle, and even my spork in tow because: why not?

More information about this inaugural (but hopefully not last!) Camping Con are available on its Twitter feed and the conference website (there were no printed programs), as well.