New U of M program engages communities of color to correct biased history

Our heritage has been Whitewashed

Visitors viewing cultural statues (Photo courtesy U of M)

At the start of fall semester, the University of Minnesota launched a new graduate program entitled Heritage Studies and Public History (HSPH). Excited to hear more about the interdisciplinary program, the MSR sat down with the program’s first students and its creators to learn what this new opportunity is all about.

HSPH draws from areas of study such as archaeology, architecture, preservation, landscape studies, culture studies and more. A long-time goal of Chris Taylor, chief inclusion officer for Minnesota Historical Society and professor at the U of M, this graduate program partners with the Historical Society to offer a quality education as well as serve various communities across Minnesota and abroad.

“One of the things that brought us together was studying the past as complicated and to think about inequalities and differences as a part of the kind of heritage that we’re dealing with,” says Professor Kevin Murphy.

Professor Rebecca Bria tells us that heritage studies “are the affiliated fields that deal with historical scholarship that is publicly accountable… while keeping in mind that history means something to people.”

Professors Taylor, Murphy, Bria, and Assoc. Professor Greg Donofrio all agree that history has been written in a biased format for years, and has been written from the dominant White perspective. One of the goals of this program is to add to the narrative by adding the various perspectives that are not accounted for in history. The professors and students we interviewed all agree that to be successful they must be involved with communities to help them answer questions around their stories and then spread it.

Connecting and working directly with communities is at the foundation of this graduate program. Bria explains that many times in archeology, the archeologist shows up, digs a site and then tells the folks who live there what they found and what it means. She further explains that by connecting and working with the community, they can gain much more perspective and tell the story a together.

“The funding is secured,” Taylor says, when it comes to placing students in communities to tell the heritage story. Taylor would like to connect with the urban area Latino community, but it has been hard to make the connection. The grad students, who come well qualified, have specific areas of interest as they continue their work.

Quentin Turner, a grad student, working as a National Register Historic Preservation Research Fellow at Minnesota Historical Society, would like to work with youth and immigrant communities. Noah Barth, a grad student who worked in archives with the Chicago Leather Archives and Museum, is interested in working with the kink and fetish communities in the LGBTQ communities to tell their stories. Hana Maruyama, currently enrolled in the HSPH program as a minor to her Ph.D., is interested in working with Asian-Pacific and American Indian communities.

HSPH master’s program students (Photo courtesy U of M)

“There’s a reason why we’re doing specifically heritage studies and not just history, right?” says Barth as it pertains to students’ interest in the program. “We’re engaging in this community work because we want to help those communities and we want to see them thrive.”

Another goal for the professors is to diversify the fields of heritage and public history. Taylor says that professional positions in museums are between 10-15 percent diverse and somewhere around five percent in leadership.

Murphy explains that these fields tend to be dominant in cultures with more privilege due to low-paying entry-level positions, the cost of education needed, and a lack of funding for students. With that in mind these instructors put an emphasis into recruiting a diverse class of students and securing some funds to relieve some of the financial burden. However, Denofrio can’t stress enough that more is needed from philanthropists and donors.

So, where would this degree be used? Well, the professors wouldn’t say, as the curriculum prepares students for many professions in museums, architecture, history and more. Turner says he’d like to see the graduates be “agitators and change agents” in whatever field they choose to pursue in their professional career.

“We want [graduates of this program] to turn institutions on top of their head. That’s really the goal of this program from my perspective,” says Turner.


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