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Reflecting on NCPH and my “repair work”

By Jackie Swihart, Public History Intern at Indiana Humanities

In March 2019, I was fortunate to present an academic poster at the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in Hartford, Connecticut. The conference’s theme, “Repair Work,” encouraged public historians to consider the work they do to mend, rebuild, and heal. I knew that my work on the Indiana Women’s Suffrage Centennial commemoration, which highlights Hoosiers who played a role in the suffrage movement both in Indiana and nationally, would be perfect for this theme. My proposal was accepted, and alas! I won a travel scholarship, flew to Hartford, and got to tell folks from across the country about the repair work we’re doing right here in Indiana. Our central website had just gone live the day before, and I was excited to spread the word! 

At the conference, conventional sessions used local examples of public history to catalyze higher-level discussions (like oppressive structures within the field and best practices for site-interpretative language). The poster session, however, brought public history back to its surface level—historians working for the public on creative and innovative projects. It was an informal, interactive configuration at which attendees could peruse 30-some posters at their leisure and chat with creators about the projects, all while snacking on jumbo pretzels and popcorn.

Jackie with her IWSC poster at the NCPH poster session in Hartford, CT.

As for my poster entry, I had expected people to be drawn in by the branding. My colleagues and I had highly prioritized that investment, and the poster was definitely eye-catching. I was surprised, however, that most people were hooked simply by the word “suffrage” in the title. Folks stopped to exclaim, “Suffrage!” Or sometimes, rather, “Suffrage?” Either way, it became clear that there was a sincere interest in talking about women’s suffrage and a yearning for repair work in women’s history. Surprised reactions implied that women’s history (particularly in relation to women’s suffrage) was missing from the conference narrative. My IWSC poster seemed to help fill that void.

Once engaged, most inquiries related to collaboration. I entertained questions like, “How were you able to find partners on this project?” “Were they difficult to work/communicate with?” “How can I approach potential collaborators with a similar idea of my own?” To these queries, I had to answer candidly. This project came together the way it did (and as quickly as it did) because of the well-connected, motivated, crafty efforts behind our partners and advisors. Coalitions work only if those involved want it to work and make it work. In that moment, I felt especially lucky to be included among a network of Hoosiers who fully understand the opportunity this anniversary provides. This commemoration, as we recognize it, is an occasion to delve deeper into the history of Indiana’s suffrage movement, capture it for future generations and repair the narrative to include women of color and working-class women. Every state can do something to commemorate women’s suffrage in 2020—people just have to seize the opportunity and work together to make it happen.  

I’m very curious to know how, or if, presenting this project at the NCPH’s annual meeting catalyzed ideas for similar projects elsewhere. What will other commemorations look like in comparison? What might hinder their particular efforts? How will others choose to collaborate and with what types of organizations? A lot of questions remain, but what I know for certain is that I’m extremely proud of the work that I’ve been able to contribute during my internship at Indiana Humanities. I’m continually inspired by the work happening there to ensure that Hoosiers are able to partake in the commemoration, as well by the dedicated work our partner organizations are doing to inspire civic action and persistence.

Jackie Swihart is a recent graduate of IUPUI’s public history master’s program and was selected as one of IUPUI’s Elite 50 graduate students. She currently interns at Indiana Humanities while finishing her thesis on Hoosier suffragist, Grace Julian Clarke.  

Photos courtesy of Christine Crosby and Kristine Navarro.