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History Vinhgnettes

Somewhere, in a forgotten drawer of my desk, are two nearly full boxes of business cards. They're from the first company that I worked for right after completing my undergraduate degree in History and English Lit from the University of British Columbia.

If you looked at both sets of cards, you’d think they were identical. And they are—almost. The only difference is that the text beneath my name shows Business Administrator on one set, and Accounts Payable on another.

That’s right. I was one of those graduates who, fresh out of university, had little idea what my liberal arts degree qualified me for in the “real world” of 9-5 work. I had my ideals, a sense of the kind of work I would enjoy, but I didn’t quite know how to reach them—or if a B.A. was even enough. After all, I’d heard all too often over the years, from a number of rational, practical, frowning voices, about the downright impracticality of an Arts degree in today's economy. And, I confess, I’d believed them. As a new graduate, I was full of the kind of paralyzing uncertainty that prevents one from moving in the direction of their dreams...or anywhere close.

Doubtful of finding a position that would utilize my particular interests and skills in historical research, writing, and analysis, I took the first job I was offered, as a business administrator for a local company. I thought that I would work for a year, save up some money, and then possibly apply for grad school—though for exactly which program, I had yet to decide. The pull of pragmatism and passion seemed equally strong.

After three months in the administrative position, my supervisor realized I had a knack for details and documentation. (That’s what years of writing with footnotes and endnotes will instill in you.) So, when the Senior Accounts Payable clerk left, I was offered her position. My background in accounting? Nil. My interest for accounting? Negative. But it was a new challenge, and I had never been able to resist challenges very well.

This one propelled me into a daunting world ruled by spreadsheets and formulas, debits and credits, taxes and custom duties, remittance dates and cheque runs—and multimillion dollar accounts to keep in good standing. I felt, to put it mildly, very far removed from the comfort zone of my liberal arts background. And I kept my humanities degree to myself, from my unsuspecting colleagues, like a dark little secret not fit for the practical world of commerce.

I found that I had an aptitude for managing spreadsheets, reconciling accounts, analyzing discrepancies. I might not have enjoyed the work all that much, but it was something I could do. So when a better position in Accounts Payable opened up at my alma mater a year later, I applied on a whim…and got it. Two more years passed in the busyness of accounting work, this time coupled with teaching clerical and managerial staff across campus about the university’s accounting procedures and policies, and training them on how to use the financial management system. It felt a little surreal at times, standing in front of the white board, mapping out debit and credit entries, and talking about PST and GST self-assessment…

Meanwhile, I still had quiet hopes about grad school and finding more fulfilling work…and I still had those two boxes of business cards, from my first job, which I had no idea what to do with. I could have recycled them of course, but I entertained a ridiculous fantasy—that one day, when I would finally be doing what I was meant to do, I would wave the cards in front of a roomful of new liberal arts graduates, as uncertain and doubtful of their future as I was, and utter the words that would set them free to chase their dreams: "Listen," I'd say, "I used to be in accounting. If I can do it, so can you. So can YOU!" I laughed the fantasy off of course, as highly improbable (and slightly megalomanic), but...I still kept those cards.

* * * * *

If, by chance, you’ve read my first post here, you’d know that eventually, I did take the plunge into graduate school, deciding to travel 4,000 km from home to pursue a Master’s in Public History at the University of Western Ontario. And that it had opened the door to an incredibly rewarding internship experience at the City of Vancouver Archives, which led to a six-month position as their temporary outreach archivist earlier this year.

The continuation of the story is that after my contract ended with the Archives, I was lucky enough to be able to start a full-time position at the very firm that inspired me to pursue Public History in the first place: AldrichPears Associates.

AldrichPears specializes in interpretive planning and exhibit design. It was their website that I stumbled across one day, when I was still immersed in accounting, which made me seriously consider grad school in the humanities (despite the frowning voices of pragmatism)—and excited about the possibilities thereafter.

AldrichPears is a Vancouver-based design firm that plans and creates visitor experiences for a range of cultural institutions in Canada and around the world. Museums, science centres, interpretive centres, zoos, parks, and botanical gardens are all reflected in their portfolio. One of their particular strengths—what appealed to me immediately upon discovering their field of work—is storytelling: finding the compelling stories that captivate their clients’ target audiences, and developing a conceptual scheme, or design approach, that best communicates these stories. To do this, AldrichPears hires and trains content developers who conduct research to uncover these important stories, develop overarching themes and storylines, write engaging interpretive text, and work closely with graphic and exhibit designers to not just textually but also visually communicate these stories—using images, typography, materials, architectural treatments, audio/visuals, interactive technologies, and other media.

I remember how surprised and delighted I was to learn that there was such a firm in my home city that did this kind of work. The diversity of AldrichPears' projects and the opportunity for continuous learning appealed to me greatly. Having pursued the biological and social sciences earnestly during my undergraduate years before deciding to major in English and History, it seemed like my varied interests (and scholarly indecision) would finally pay off. Here was a career setting where the researchable content changed from project to project, often times greatly—and where diverse interests, rather than highly specialized knowledge, were an asset. 

Moreover, what I found most appealing in this line of work was the firm’s focus on sharing important stories in a way that not only educates but also seeks to inspire change. This focus spoke to all my passions: storytelling, accessibility, public engagement, and social change.

Currently, I’m working in the capacity of communications coordinator and content developer at AldrichPears. This means that I have a chance to research new projects and put together competitive proposals as well as carry out interpretive research and writing for two international projects.

The rather humourous irony is that it also means, on the business side of things, that I need to whip out complex spreadsheets every so often—in order to propose multi-stage work plans that reflect accurate hours and consultant fees for new projects. I might prefer to keep my accounting stint from my unsuspecting colleagues, like a dark little secret not fit for the creative world of exhibit design—but I cannot deny that that experience has been invaluable to fulfilling the administrative duties of my role. And too, I’ve learned to see how a well-designed spreadsheet can also be a beautiful thing. :)

Does this newfound appreciation mean I’m planning on returning to the world of accounting anytime soon? Not a chance!

Am I grateful, however, for the experience that induction into this field has provided? Yes, most definitely (even if slightly grudgingly)!

All of this brings to mind what Dr. Bill Turkel, my Digital History Prof at Western used to tell us, about how, as humanities graduate students, we should seek to diversify our skills as much as possible. Whether it was learning how to design a website or how to do basic programming or even how to balance debits and credits, he was convinced that the more we expanded our skill set and combined it with our expertise in historical research, writing, and analysis, the better positioned we would be as Public History graduates in search of rewarding employment when we left the program.

* * * * *

Several weeks ago, I found on my desk a box of beautifully designed business cards—my own, from AldrichPears. Visually, they could not be more different than my first set of cards, symbolic of how much has changed between my very first full-time position and my current one.

But then, it struck me that the two key letters in the firm’s name—AP—are identical to the industry abbreviation for Accounts Payable: A/P (minus the slash, of course). The unexpected similarity made me smile, reminding me of what a friend once said, that all experiences—absolutely all of them—are useful in shaping who you are and what you can offer to the world.

If you love history, if you love the arts, and you’re not (yet) doing what you love—because it’s hard to get into the field, because you’ve listened to well-intentioned practical advice, because you’re full of uncertainty, because your current job is comfortable, if somewhat uninspiring, etc.—that’s okay. It really is. Because you can still learn valuable skills in whatever you’re currently doing that you can draw upon later, that can bring a new perspective to the practice of history in the 21st century. Think of it as a chance to cross-pollinate—to bring the ideas or practices of one discipline to enrich another.

And too, I think that the benefit of doing something you don’t really like (or that you really don’t like) is that sooner or later (and there’s a direct correlation here between level of job dissatisfaction and length of time before new career exploration), you’ll be compelled to search out what truly gives you satisfaction. And when you find it, it’ll be that much sweeter—and worth the wait. :)

Posted: 31/10/2010 5:58:25 PM by Vicky Vinh Tran | with 0 comments
Imagine this:
An elementary school devoting an entire day to celebrating Canadian history.
Classrooms and hallways lined with tables displaying colourful posters and models. 
Vibrant projects bearing diverse titles like The Royal Canadian Mint, Community Policing, Niagara Falls, Emily Carr, Tim Hortons, even Robert Munsch!
And an infectious atmosphere of energy and excitement resonating throughout the hallways as students present their history projects to visitors and each other. 
A day devoted to history in the classroom. A school-wide heritage fair honouring the multitude of stories that make up Canada’s past while getting kids interested and engaged in the telling of history.
Is this just some fantasy dreamed up by a wishful Public History graduate?
Thankfully not!
This was, in fact, what I witnessed this past April, when I had the privilege to serve as a Heritage Fair Adjudicator at my former elementary school, Sir Richard McBride.
It was my first introduction to the BC Heritage Fairs Program at a local level – and surely not my last! As a Heritage Fair Adjudicator, I had the opportunity to meet students from grades 4 to 7 and learn all about their projects. 
If you ever want a crash course in Canadian history, adjudicating at a Heritage Fair is surely one way to do it! I learned all sorts of interesting stories and facts about Canada’s past, as wonderfully diverse as the students that I had a chance to interview. 
From the amusing tale of how the Albertan city of Drumheller got its name as a result of a fateful coin toss to the inspiring one about the honorable conduct of Vancouver’s Asahi Tigers baseball team in the face of internment, I left McBride that day convinced that if more people attended such fairs, the commonsensical notion that Canadian history is <gasp!> “boring” would not persist.
What impressed me so much was that so many of the students chose topics to explore that were meaningful to them. They started from a place of personal interest and curiosity – and many, I believe, ended up learning not only about Canadian heritage, but also about themselves in the process.
One student investigated the history of the Vancouver Film School and his beautifully designed poster board was a clear indication of his interest and talents in the fine arts. This student was contemplating a career in the fascinating world of makeup and design, and he used the Heritage Fair assignment as a launching point to explore the development of an institution that he’s (already!) thinking about attending. 
Another student was inspired by a visit with his family to the Wing Sang Building, the oldest structure in Vancouver’s Chinatown and now a refurbished art gallery housing a private collection. He decided to do his project on the history of this building and the ways in which it has been preserved in recent years. His emerging interest in the preservation of Vancouver’s built heritage was so evident in his enthusiastic presentation on the Wing Sang Building.
A third student began from a deeply personal place: the story of her family’s flee from Vietnam to North America. Her mother’s family had left their native country by boat to carve out a new existence in Canada. They went on to achieve success in their newly adopted homeland: the student’s project included newspaper articles that featured particular family members and stories about their accomplishments – and tenacity. The project also encouraged intergenerational dialogue as this student had a chance to interview her mother about the emigration experience and to learn more about the story of her family’s past and the larger historical forces at work in shaping it.
Ms. Joanne Carlton, my former Grade 7 teacher, who is still as indefatigable and passionate about teaching as ever, emphasized this story aspect when she met with all Heritage Fair Adjudicators prior to the judging. She mentioned that the projects were really about the personal stories that the students connected with, that were relevant to their lives. The school fair, she said, was a celebration of these stories, which the students had researched so diligently and presented in such creative ways. They took pride and ownership in their work – as they should – and really valued the written feedback provided by the Adjudicators. (One student, she said, had even framed the comments he'd received from a previous Fair!)
Ms. Carlton also noted the kinds of skills that the students were acquiring: not only were they learning how to do research and write reports, they were also gaining other practical skills, such as contacting and interviewing subjects as well as designing and delivering presentations.
From the projects I judged, I think I would also add cold-calling and practicing perseverance to the list! One plucky student, for example, managed to arrange for a Police Officer to be a part of his presentation on the history of the Vancouver Police Department. His persistence in calling the non-Emergency line (right up to the morning of the Fair ) in order to make this happen was impressive! It's so encouraging to see that school-based Heritage Fairs, such as the one at McBride, are equipping students at an early age with skills that will stand them in good stead in the future – no matter what field they decide to pursue. (I’ll remember this the next time I hear someone question just how “practical” a history degree is.)
I left the Fair that day also extremely impressed by the creative capacities of the students. Part of the challenge of a Heritage Fair project is not simply to present a written report of your research topic, but to incorporate the written and the visual in a meaningful way, so that, as a whole, the viewer experiences the subject at hand. 
If you have ever enjoyed Purdy’s chocolates, you might have mistaken the model which one of the students made to be the real thing. Painted in a glossy brown and decorated with colour and texture, the “chocolates” appeared real enough to tempt many to inquire if she was handing out samples. They were a perfect visual accompaniment to her project on the history of this famous chocolate factory and their recognizable goodies packaged in signature purple and gold boxes.
Another student’s project on Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, a tranquil and well-frequented site in Vancouver’s Chinatown, included a model of the actual garden itself. Made out of the materials of the everyday – including a corrugated cake tray that became the tiled roof of the wall surrounding the garden, and green-painted sponges cut into triangles to represent scenic bushes – it was a breathtaking model that masterfully represented the scale and beauty of the Garden in miniature.
Yet another presenter, one of Ms. Carlton’s grade seven students, did a wonderful project on the history of Granville Island and its transformation from an industrial area to the vibrant market place that it is today. Form and content came together beautifully in her poster board which emphasized the theme of transformation in its very design. A “Before” panel on the left showed black and white pictures of a historic industrial area in contrast to an “After” panel on the right that displayed colourful photos of the market and its visitors. The student also put her artistic skills to work in designing the poster’s title to resemble the actual illuminated Granville Island Public Market sign and in making miniature models of the kinds of scrumptious goods available in the market. It was a feast for the eyes!
If you ever want to be inspired by the ingenuity, enthusiasm, talents, and tenacity of elementary school students, I suggest you serve as a Heritage Fair Adjudicator at your local school one year. It’ll open your eyes to their creative and intellectual capacities for Canadian Heritage. As Janet Morley, seasoned Adjudicator and energetic organizer of the Vancouver Regional Heritage Fairs for many years, has said, “Sometimes you forget that you’re speaking to an eleven year old.”
To see photos of a selection of projects from the Heritage Fair at McBride Elementary, please visit:

Posted: 06/06/2010 11:30:20 PM by Vicky Vinh Tran | with 0 comments
Explore Vancouver’s East End on a balmy spring day and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you see:

Lanes of cherry blossoms in full bloom. Sprawling daffodils poking out of front yard fences. Rose bushes growing in wild abandon. Nature, you’ll notice, thrives in this neighborhood.

So too, you see, do architectural colour and diversity. The houses that line the streets exude a character all their own. The builders of the past appear to have had a rainbow of colours to paint with and a variety of materials to build with, too. There are houses lined with brick, covered in tiles, adorned with shingles, trimmed with wood…and they come in vibrant reds and yellows, deep purples and greens – and everything in between.

You might even marvel at the intricacy and detail in some of the homes you pass – with their fine woodwork, or fancy gables, or beautiful stained-glass windows.

Perhaps you will even wonder about the history of the houses, about their designers and builders, about the people who called them home. What stories could these houses tell, if their walls could speak?

* * * * *

James Johnstone is a local house historian in Vancouver. Uncovering the stories of the houses in the city’s East End is something he does for a living – and he does it thoroughly. Having researched over 250 homes in this neighborhood and an appreciative resident of the East End himself, James is very knowledgeable about this particular area of Vancouver and its colourful past.

James runs East End History Walking Tours periodically, and the first Saturday in March, on a gorgeous, blue-sky day, I had a chance to join him on one of these walks through Vancouver’s earliest neighborhood, known for years as the East End before the City officially named it Strathcona in the 1960s.

The walking tour is a two-hour excursion that takes us through many of the principle streets and avenues of the neighborhood: Heatley, Keefer, Princess, East Georgia, Jackson, Union, Gore, Dunlevy, East Prior, and East Pender.

We stop at numerous houses and landmarks along the way, and hear about some aspect of their past, whether about the builders, residents, or buildings themselves; or about the community that lived along that street; or about some great (or terrible) event that took place in that particular location. We also learn about how these people, communities, and events fit into the larger social history of the neighborhood.

James carries with him a show-and-tell binder full of archival records, which he flips through at ease throughout the tour, and holds up for us to see. The records are mostly photographs of the men and women he’s recounting and they serve to give us a clearer picture of the characters in his tales.

And what dramatic tales they are!

The East End has had its share of tumult and tragedy, of triumph and transition, and James’s tour acquaints you with these varied elements of its history. It’s a story that can be told concretely through the typography of the neighborhood.

So, for instance, we get a sense of the extent of the 1918 Spanish Flu when we stand in the slanted alleyway behind the former undertaker’s house on the corner of Heatley and East Pender, and hear, with shock, that that is where dead bodies were once piled up, victims of an epidemic that claimed more lives than the undertaker could speedily examine.

We learn that the row houses – literally, a row of nearly identical units, often attached to one another – were often the homes of new immigrants to the city. The turnover rates were high in these Vancouver starter homes, as settled immigrants moved and another wave of newcomers filled the space they left.

Like the individual units of the row houses, poverty and prosperity existed side by side in the East End. At one set of such housing on Jackson Street, James touches on suicides and mentions a particularly horrible one he came across: in 1910, one down-and-out tenant drank carbolic acid to end his life.

Then too, there is the terrible shooting that occurred outside a former East End home located at 522 East Georgia. Although the original house no longer stands, James points out the Spanish-tiled two-story home that currently rests on the site of Vancouver’s most infamous shooting, one which solidified the popular image of the East End as a “dangerous place”.

It occurred on March 20, 1917, and involved a couple – Frankie Russell and Bob Tait – who refused to pay their rent and a disgruntled landlord who would not have it otherwise. Guns were wielded, police were dispatched, a shoot-out occurred. In the end, Tait, Chief Constable Malcolm MacLennan, and an eight-year old boy were dead.

But not all the stories of the East End’s history are dark. Far from it.

James takes us by the homes of activists and aviators, writers and musicians, civic and community leaders whose energy and vision have left a lasting impact on the city – and beyond.

We pass by a two-story home on Keefer Street belonging to Mary Lee Chan and her daughter Shirley, community activists who fought City Hall when the future of the East End was in jeopardy. Founding members of the Strathcona Property Owners & Tenants Association, mother and daughter joined with others to oppose the City’s redevelopment plans, which included building a freeway to downtown between Union and Prior Streets.

Their efforts prevented the further destruction of century-old homes in a neighborhood that had already experienced harsh rezoning measures in the past.

On Union Street, we get to glimpse the former homes – two of them – of pioneer female aviator, Tosca Trasolini, and wonder if it was in this neighborhood that the young Trasolini first dreamt about her own place in the air.

My particularly favorite stops were by the former residences of acclaimed Chinese-Canadian writers, Paul Yee and Wayson Choy, at Heatley Avenue and Keefer Street, respectively. Having read Yee’s Saltwater City and Choy’s The Jade Peony, I appreciated the chance to see where these writers grew up and what neighborhood inspired their creative works. And I learned some things I never knew: such as how the East End’s MacLean Park – an important setting in The Jade Peony – is not the original one mentioned in the novel. That one, on Union & Jackson, was turned into a major apartment complex that stands today. This complex and the park that now exists by the same name between Heatley and Hawks Avenues is a reflection of the City’s intermittent lunges towards modernization in the East End in the 50s and 60s.

We also see the former home of Michael Bublé’s grandmother on Union, and those of Ross and Nora Hendrix, the grandparents of Jimi Hendrix, one on East Georgia and a second on East Pender. (There’s even a shrine to the late musician in the neighborhood located at 207 Union Street.) James mentions too that k.d. lang used to live in the East End, in the 700 block of Union. Wow! It’s neat to connect physical homes with musicians, and wonder if they worked out some tune while walking through the streets, whether as resident of, or visitor to, the East End.

James also takes us by the homes of BC’s first Supreme Court Judge of Italian descent, Angelo Branca, and of former premier, Dave Barrett. They’re located on Prior and Union Streets, respectively. We stop, too, at the corner of Keefer Street and Princess Avenue, in front of a stately old house that once belonged to Gregory Tom, a former principal of Lord Strathcona Elementary, the oldest school in the city. James explains how this keen leader had his house designed in a certain way so that, from his second-story corner window which faces the school grounds directly, he could keep a sharp eye on his pupils during the lunch hour. You never know what lively details a quiet old house can reveal.

* * * * *

Near the end of the tour, James tells us that some of his history-sleuthing occurs by “happenstance and coincidence”: while searching the archives for one record, he might stumble fortuitously on another that reveals some new angle on an old house; while leading participants on a walking tour, he might learn a little-known fact from a participant connected to a particular house in some way. And so on and so forth. These details, in turn, are ones that James passes along to future participants. They’re little anecdotal gems that make the tour so interesting. One could take it twice, I’m sure, and still gain new insights the second time around.

One of the most memorable parts of the East End tour for me on that sunny day in March was also something that occurred entirely by coincidence. A happy one, you might say.

While showing us a circa 1894 photo of a house currently standing on 527 Union Street (formerly 511 Barnard Street), James notices that its inhabitants – an elderly Chinese couple – are making their way down the front stairs and towards their car.

“I wonder,” he muses, “if they know that this is their house in this picture.”

He catches the eye of the elderly woman, just as she opens the passenger door to slip in, and flashes his photograph up.

“This is your house,” he says.

“My house? That not my house,” she replies, squinting at the photo. But she’s intrigued. Because she leaves the car door open and walks toward us.

“It’s your house,” James affirms.

“No, that not my house,” the woman says again. But she keeps looking as James points out the details in the photo – the stairs leading up to the door, the front gable and its pattern of ornamental shingles – and points back to the house she’s just left.

You can see her eyes begin to sparkle during this exchange. Sometime between the glancing down and back up, between the inspection of the photo and of her own house, the woman becomes excited. So too does her husband, who, at this point, has gotten out of the car and is also peering at the photo with interest.

The details that James highlights have convinced her:

“That my house!” she exclaims at last.

Her husband looks at the date on the photograph and again at his home.

“My house over 100 years old!” he remarks, with an expression of pride and incredulous wonder on his face.

We grin to see their excitement.

The elderly woman asks James if she can have a copy of the photograph. He offers to make her one and leave it in her mailbox. Can he also give her some details about the house? She wants to know more – who built it, who are the people posing in front if it, what did they do? Again, he agrees. He’ll write some details on the back of the copy for her.

Satisfied that he’ll keep his promise, the woman smiles and the couple return to their car, with bemused looks on their faces.

I’m sure that, sometime during that day, this elderly and spirited Chinese couple must have stopped and mused about the coincidence of what had just happened. I know I did. I was reminded too about History’s evocative power: how it can reach out and touch you; how it can leave you with a sense of wonder, a sparkle in your eye, a humble amazement at your very direct connection to the people before you, and, perhaps, to those who will come after you.

That’s the beauty of learning History, and of passing it on too.

* * * * *

Explore Vancouver’s East End on a balmy spring day and you don’t know just what surprises might await you.

For any Vancouverites interested in touring the East End, or any visitors planning a trip here and in search of a more authentic experience of the city, you can find out more about the East End History Walking Tour by visiting James Johnstone’s blog:

You can also read a detailed account of the March 20, 1917 shooting incident on James’s blog as well as that of Vancouver historian Lani Russwurm:

And finally, as I had my trusty camera along on the day of the walking tour, you can view some photos of the East End here along with a few more notes from the tour:

Posted: 11/04/2010 8:16:28 PM by Vicky Vinh Tran | with 0 comments

A little over a year and a half ago, I moved to London.  No, not that London.  The other one.  In Ontario, about a two hour drive south of Toronto.  I was just beginning the Public History MA Program at the University of Western Ontario, and anticipating that I would have to field a lot of inquiries there as I had in Vancouver, where acquaintances, relatives, co-workers, and generally well-meaning people interested in my career goals had inquired what exactly “public history” was.

My answers were usually prefaced by a nervous, apologetic chuckle; they were also often riddled with ellipses:

“Public history…well…hehe…you see…it’s, uh, history…for the public! Ha ha…ahem.”

Of course, I learned to articulate more sophisticated answers before I left — such as “I’m going to study how history has been communicated to the public as well as participate in the communication of history to the public” — but they never deterred the practical listener from asking the typical, and typically dreaded, question:

“Oh.  Well – what are you going to do with that?”

If I felt the listener was at all capable of secret, impractical dreams, I’d share about my interest in history and communication and design, about how I hoped to develop exhibit content one day because I enjoyed research and writing and uncovering the compelling -story part of history – or herstory! – to share with a wide audience.

But if I was tired – and dubious of my listener’s sympathies, I’d simply say “museums.”  Understanding would dawn in my interlocutor’s eyes, followed by a shadow of pity – for the narrow field I’d chosen.

“Vancouver doesn’t have a lot of, uh, museums,” they’d say, after a significant pause.

You can imagine my surprise then, when three of the first handful of people I met in London, outside of my peer group, did not look at me with confusion, pity, or disbelief when they heard about what I was studying and learned that I had flown all the way from Vancouver to study it.

Although these listeners all came from different backgrounds – one was a Master’s student in the Department of Mathematics at Western; the other a PhD candidate in Physics, also at Western; and the third a congenial middle-aged employee from Loblaws – their responses were unified in their recognition of the relevance of such a program – or, rather, the relevance of such a program’s approach.  Both UWO students in fact drew analogies between Public History and — wonder of wonders! — other scientific fields based on the common ground that they were all about communicating specialized knowledge to a general audience in a comprehensible way.

So, I heard for instance about how a friend of the Mathematics student, studying Geography, was enrolled in a course geared towards presenting information about natural disasters and how to prepare for them to an uninitiated audience.  I also learned that the PhD candidate was involved in explaining developments in biophysical engineering to a non-scientific crowd.

As for the friendly Loblaws employee, with whom I had begun a conversation while we were both waiting for the bus, she was eager to hear about the potential of the Web for making history engaging and accessible.  Moreover, she was excited about its educational prospects in a Digital Age and could understand why I had chosen to pursue this field.

“How exciting!” she had repeated, again and again, during the course of our conversation.  (“How odd,” I had thought, again and again, that she could understand my enthusiasm and imagine the work I’d be doing better than some intellectual professionals I had encountered.)

I’ve never forgotten these three Londoners; they gave me hope that perhaps the field I’d entered was not so curious – or impractical – after all.

And hope, I remember, was something I greatly needed as a new student to London at the time who, being a generally risk-adverse “let’s-weigh-all-the-pros-and-cons-of-a-decision” type person, had just thrown caution to the wind to move east.  I had left a comfortable position at a local university – you know, one with regular pay and benefits; what aspiring Public History students dare to dream about at night – where I had been working for a solid three years in order to move to (the other) London in pursuit of what seemed a vague dream at best.  To find out that that dream was not so nebulous, not so incomprehensible as feared, when I described it, haltingly, to three strangers, was a thrilling relief.

Since that time, and especially after a most rewarding internship at the fabulous City of Vancouver Archives this past fall (and if you’ve never associated the word “fabulous” with “archives” before, please be forewarned: I fully intend on convincing you of this association in future posts), I’ve learned that the reaction of those three Londoners was not a strange fluke of a sympathetic universe.

The idea that had resonated with them, what I had learned to articulate better by then – the idea of taking specialized knowledge and making it accessible to an uninitiated audience – is one that is not so very impractical at all.  Many, many professionals do it: from doctors and pharmacists who have to communicate important and complex information to those for whom medical language would be gibberish, to programmers and developers who have to work closely with non-technical clients whose vision of a particular application’s functions may not be, let us say, technically sound or practicable.

The ability to translate esoteric knowledge into palatable information – what Public Historians in training must learn to do and do well – is applicable to those fields that deal with the general public.  And, at last count, there are 2, 933 fields that do this.  Alright, I just made up that number, but I think you know what I mean.  Walk into any bookstore, for instance, and you cannot miss the countless number of books by subject experts written purposely for the layperson.

What perhaps sets a Public Historian’s training apart from, say, that of a doctor or a pharmacist (other than the fact that we don’t have to deal with cadavers or compounds) is that we also learn how to make the knowledge we’re sharing compelling and engaging, not just informative.

Yes, that might mean that we play the entertainer and not just the educator a lot of the time, but we try to be responsible, ethical entertainers.  And also, I think it’s safe to say,  everyone likes to hear a good story – so why not tell one if you can?  History is certainly full of them, just waiting to be told.  How it is told to a general audience – using what words, what images, what methods, what technologies – lies in the province of Public History.

After completing the program at Western and having a chance to translate theory into practice at a cutting-edge archival institution, I can only say this: I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to venture into the study of Public History as well as to have had the support of family and friends who, if they didn’t altogether understand why I had chosen this particular career path, still cheered me on from a distance – and continue to cheer me on now, in my first professional position as temporary outreach archivist at the City of Vancouver Archives.

And that nervous chuckle that once was a knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone asked me what I was studying?  Gone.  In its place is an enthusiastic determination to get the word out about the value of history to society.  And by the way, I’m fully intent on making history and archives sexy.  But that is for another post altogether.  ;)

Posted: 16/03/2010 3:26:24 AM by Vicky Vinh Tran | with 0 comments

Vicky Vinh Tran

Vicky Vinh Tran holds a B.A. in History and English Literature from the University of British Columbia, and an M.A. in Public History from the University of Western Ontario. She lives on the west coast in a beautiful city defined by mountains, trees, ocean, and, well, rain. Fortunately, she doesn’t mind precipitation.

Vicky is interested in history, archives, communication, technology, photography, literature, and design. She believes that history matters, and that it can also be fun, exciting, and downright riveting! She is currently working at an exhibit design and planning firm in downtown Vancouver which inspired her to pursue Public History in the first place.

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