Explore Baltimore Heritage: Public History in Action

Eli Pousson is a field officer at Baltimore Heritage in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Eli PoussonThanks to a BreakingGround-funded course this past fall, Baltimore Heritage enjoyed a unique opportunity to work closely with Dr. Denise Meringolo and nine UMBC students in the course Practices in Public History. The students worked with us to develop short video documentaries on the stories of Baltimore’s historic landmarks for our new website and smartphone application, Explore Baltimore Heritage. The student videos — produced with support from the UMBC New Media Studio — share images and vignettes from the history of grave-robbing at Davidge Hall, the ignominious demise of Edgar Allen Poe and his burial at the Westminster Burying Ground, and the complicated past of urban renewal at Baltimore’s First Mariner Arena.

Baltimore Heritage is dedicated to promoting historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization in neighborhoods across the city and we’ve campaigned for preservation on the west side of downtown Baltimore for over a decade. When we first started working with Dr. Meringolo and her public history students in spring semester of 2012, we developed a project that allowed students to build on on our existing research and tell new stories about historic places like the Baltimore Bargain House or Hutzler’s Department Store with writing and archival photographs. When Dr. Meringolo offered us the opportunity to continue working with her students into the fall, we settled on an ambitious goal: use the wealth of historic photos from local archives to tell stories with short videos. Fortunately, several of the students from the spring semester collaboration decided to continue with the second course and brought valuable expertise on the history of downtown Baltimore to this new challenge.

It has been exciting observe how the students have gained a new perspective on the role of public history in the often political and messy debates around economic development and preservation in an urban downtown. For Baltimore Heritage, the partnership has greatly extended the capacity of our small two-person non-profit and enabled us to expand the featured buildings on Downtown’s West Side.

Please enjoy these great videos on YouTube, check out Explore Baltimore Heritage online, or download the iPhone or Android application today!

Contact the author, Eli Pousson, at pousson@baltimoreheritage.org.

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West Side Stories

Chelsea Haddaway Williams is a communications manager in UMBC’s Office of Institutional Advancement.

Chelsea Haddaway WilliamsLast Wednesday I got to be in the room as the students in “West Side Stories,” a BreakingGround-funded public history class, presented their final projects. I was familiar with the concept of the class – it was the follow-up to a class last semester that I wrote about for UMBC Magazine – but I was excited to see the students’ final projects, videos about buildings on the West Side of Baltimore, and see how the grant from BreakingGround had changed how the participants thought about their work.

Denise Meringolo, associate professor of history, introduced the videos by telling everyone that “public history is about engaging the community in the practice of history.” I thought this was a great way to describe the purpose of the class, and that this idea aligned really well with the values of BreakingGround. It was clear throughout the presentations that Professor Meringolo and her students didn’t see themselves as the gatekeepers of history, but rather as partners with the communities whose stories they were telling.

The videos were impressive and interesting, giving the story of everything from vaudeville at the Hippodrome, to body-snatching at the University of Maryland Medical School, to the controversy surrounding the construction of First Mariner Arena. They were created to be used by local preservation organization Baltimore Heritage as part of their walking tours app, and I could easily imagine them playing on iPhones as people stood before the buildings that inspired them.

After the videos were over, the students got into a really interesting discussion about “ownership” and how it can lead to social change. There was lots of joking about the fact that, now that these students had studied these buildings for a semester or two, they thought of them as “their” buildings.  But that joking soon segued into a conversation how public history can inspire a sense of ownership, which can lead to increased engagement. After all, if people know more about a place’s past (whether it’s their own neighborhood or one they’re just visiting), they’ll be more likely to invest in its future. The students – some of whom had grown up in Baltimore, some of whom had moved here only recently – all said they felt more engaged with the community as a result of working on these videos, and hoped the people who watched them would feel more connected to the West Side.

A psychology professor said to me recently, “sometimes it’s necessary to look to the past in order to move forward.” Clearly, this is something that the public historians enrolled in “West Side Stories” understand, and something that is important for all agents of social change to remember.

Contact the author, Chelsea Haddaway Williams, at chelseah@umbc.edu.