Friday, May 24, 2013

Around the table in Ottawa: A report from the Working Group on Public History and the Local Food Movement

The Working Group at Ottawa's Experimental Farm, April 18, 2013
The series of posts that appeared here in the first few months of the year were written by members of the "Public Historians and the Local Food Movement" Working Group that was convened for the 2013 National Council on Public History conference, held last month in Ottawa.  The group held its face-to-face meeting at Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm, a visit that enriched our thinking about some of the ways that public historians do and might intersect with both agricultural practices and public interest in food and farming.

Participants came to the table with a very wide range of backgrounds in interpretation, training, research, advocacy, and community organizing. Some key ideas that emerged from our discussions included:
  • the importance of challenging the class distinction between manual and intellectual labor
  • how to use tangible/physical experiences of growing and cooking food as a way to develop stronger questions that can inform our work as historians
  • the need for long-term commitment to food- and farm-related projects
  • how to educate ourselves and others about the complex realities of farming, agricultural policy, and marketing food
  • ways to use public historical spaces and legitimacy to create new forums where people can connect across various class, political, and occupational boundaries.
The Working Group has a working lunch
One of the most stimulating parts of the meeting for me was the discussion of how our work as public historians can best relate to advocacy and activism.  Most of the people around the table were involved in some kind of food and farm education and interpretation, usually in ways that intersected with "the food movement" (broadly defined).  We recognized that our own values, tastes, and politics underpinned our interest in pursuing food-related projects, so we certainly weren't arguing that public historians should seek some kind of purely neutral or disinterested stance.

But at the same time, we found ourselves agreeing that historians’ essential neutrality (that is, our core commitment to critical, contextualized inquiry) is a gift that can help us to raise more nuanced questions and create useable spaces for discussion within a politicized and complex field. So while we generally saw ourselves as advocates and allies for those working to relocalize food systems and challenge the dominance of big, industrialized agriculture, part of what we wanted to advocate for is a balanced conversation that doesn't demonize "big ag" or romanticize "the local."

Another working group: the Experimental Farm's dairy herd
That's a stance that many museums and public history sites have adopted in an era of "civic engagement, so it's not as though we came up with anything entirely new here!  What is new about linking this approach to food and farming related issues, I think, is the way our own actions and identities become immediately much more salient than is usually the case.  We talked about the importance of being willing to get our hands dirty--in the field and in the kitchen--as a way to build credibility and accountability with partners.  We touched on the potentially uncomfortable ways that our own class positions come into play in relation to food and farming (for example, in the way that the mostly-white, mostly-middle-class demography of public history replicates that of the food movement in general, something I wrote about in a blog post last year).  Because food is such an intimate and everyday thing, as well as creating such a powerful cultural and political field, that balancing act between advocacy and neutrality becomes both trickier and more essential. 

For my co-facilitator Michelle Moon and I, the next steps after the meeting in Ottawa involve the book project that we've been developing around these questions.  I'm hoping others in our Working Group will share a few thoughts here about where they see their food-and-farm-related work headed now.  What next after Ottawa?

~ Cathy Stanton 


  1. My main action item coming out of the working group was planting a garden. I took seriously the admonition that we needed to dig in the dirt if we wanted to do this type of work. I'm also developing a Tumblr site to share farming-related oral histories and images. What I'd really like to do this summer, though, is get out and talk to a lot more people.

  2. This is a must-read: "Small Dairies and the Big Apple" Explains the foodies vs. farmers debate that I mentioned in an earlier comment.

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