When was the last time you hung out as a historian with a whole bunch of non-historians? Even without the pandemic factor, I’m willing to bet it’s been a while, if ever. But maybe it’s time to start?
In the last month, I’ve started volunteering with one of my favorite local arts groups, Artstillery. They did the fantastic Family Dollar show, which I wrote about last summer. In December, I met up with their founder, Ilknur, and learned about their upcoming show. Without giving too much away at this point, it’s about a topic in local history that has been a part of my life for almost my entire career. Ilknur could tell I was more than a little excited, as I started gushing out various historical tidbits and connections. She looked at me with a very serious expression and said “Would it bring you joy to be in the writer’s room for this project?” I think you know what I said. (Side note: this is possibly the best ask for involvement I’ve ever heard. How can anyone say no? Feel free to borrow it!)
We kept talking. And then she said “What if you were the resident historian for this project?” That was another easy answer. So I’ve started attending their bi-weekly meetings (often at a favorite brewery, so that’s not a bad thing!) getting to know the team, and getting involved in the early stages of this project.
But here’s the surprise: they are genuinely excited about me being involved, even in my very limited way. And though I’m sure a large part of it is my charming personality, most of it is because of my historical skills. When you’re surrounded by historians on a regular basis, your ability to talk on the fly about history is no big deal. In fact, it can be a little nerve-wracking if there’s another expert in the room. But these folks are impressed! Last night, I got called a “boss” (including appropriate expletives) after talking a bit about urban planning and systemic racism. I’m not an expert by any means, but when you spend most of your career in the shadow of a highway that destroyed multiple neighborhoods, you learn some stuff. That knowledge was needed by the team–and it was fun to share.
But that’s not even the best part. The best part is the cross-collaboration that’s starting to happen. This is definitely a humanities project, but they hadn’t really looked at humanities funding. Now they are, through some of my connections. My connections in the local history community are also a huge help, since our networks don’t completely overlap. For me, I’m loving watching the ideas flow on how to tell this complicated history. They’re not defining this project as a play, but as an experiences. Of course, a lot of museums talk about experiences too, but Arstillery approaches it through the lens of theater–and that’s a very different lens.
It’s still very early days. There is a lot of work ahead for all of us, but there’s also this sense that we’re doing something really important for the city. I can’t think of many other history projects that are this satisfying, and we’re barely gotten started on the history part. In this era of culture wars and history wars, it feels really good to be valued just by being a historian.
So, to my fellow historians, I challenge you: find a group of folks that are history-adjacent, but maybe not historians. Start hanging out. Listen. Learn. Share. Be reminded that what we do as historians is special. And necessary.
I’ll keep you posted on this project. I think it’s going to be a wild ride!