All Together Now: Public Art & Public History

To call yourself a generalist is, generally, not a good thing. To be a specialist is where it’s at—at least in terms of rising to the top of your field. But, I like a little bit of (almost) everything and that’s probably why I fell for art history many years ago, but also why my Ph.D. is in the Humanities.

The overarching occupation of art history is the study and interpretation of works of art and the time, place and people that produced them. Books such as The Public Artscape of New Haven: Themes in the Creation of a City Image and Art of the Amistad and the Portrait of Cinqué are examples of this pursuit. But, even when I am writing “straight” history such as my Historic Virginia, A Tour of More Than 75 of the State’s Top National Landmarks, A Guide to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia or New Haven in World War I books, I begin projects and find inspiration in the stories embedded in objects, places and people.

Identifying and teasing out these stories is the method to the madness, and is very much a humanities pursuit that crosses the boundaries between public art and public history.

Placemaking is the word that brings much of this work together. Many things are wrapped up in shaping a sense of place, including historic sites and contemporary art, parks and landscapes, and public spaces such as museums and libraries, farmer’s markets and community gardens, and walking paths and trails.  In placemaking, the core idea is to use history combined with contemporary needs to design exhibits, programs, and works of public art and history that reflect on, and perhaps move forward, the meanings we attach to a particular place. In other words, placemaking uses public art and public history as a tool for community and cultural development.

What is it like to do this kind of work?  When undertaking a new project, research in libraries and archives is only half the fun (and it is fun!). The other half is surely visiting those objects and places involved with your project and seeing firsthand how they work and what meaning is created about them, and for them. What do people think and feel about their places, and why?

One of my earliest experiences doing this was as a Student Conservation Association (SCA) intern at Mesa Verde National Park the year after I graduated college. I can still remember the different people I met while there, in that rustic pre-Internet era—park rangers and archaeologists, and the volunteers who accompanied a group of us on a night-time hike to listen for owls.

We were all there together, a hodgepodge of humanity, because of the place itself, breathing in the juniper berries and pine needles of the flat, green mesas and caring for the prehistoric past, left behind in kivas and cliff dwellings. This trip was the first time I went to a Walmart (in Cortez, Colorado) and the first time I visited “Indian Country” and ate frybread. All of these things—whether high culture or low, whether ancient or new—coalesce into a unique sense of place.

The work is challenging but gratifying, existing somewhere between the walls of academia, the efforts of not-for-profit organizations and municipalities serving their constituents and the work of artists and local historians who follow their passions and desire to change society through the act of creating and sharing history and art.

To share what I’ve learned, I teach, research, write, present at conferences and publish across platforms, from academic journals to general interest books in print, to websites and crowdsourcing platforms such as Wiki Loves Monuments, Clio and the Public Art Archive.

I look forward to meeting you, across the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond!

—Laura A. Macaluso