By Michael Madeja, American Philosophical Society Museum, Philadelphia, PA
In a city whose history organizations face innumerable challenges, we witness many more triumphs. It’s easy to tell stories of organization-wide failures or missed opportunities for collaboration, but these stories lose sight sight of why we, as history professionals of various forms, combat these challenges. I’m honored and humbled to participate in the yearly regional competition for National History Day, aptly named NHD Philly. The details below are about history organizations at their best because these stories are not about history organizations themselves: they are about the successes of two students from Philadelphia winning a national competition with the help of a collective of Philadelphia-based history organizations. In a year with the AASLH theme of “What Are We Waiting For?” and an NHD theme of “Triumph and Tragedy,” I can think of no better blog post to share than this.
Philadelphia and NHD Philly had the great honor of celebrating Harry Murphy and Taryn Flaherty in June. Harry and Taryn won first and second place, respectively, for their entries in the nationwide National History Day competition this year. Harry’s first place win for his paper “Dealing with the Devil: The Triumph and Tragedy of IBM’s Business with the Third Reich” was a first for NHD Philly. Taryn’s second place win for an exhibit featured the struggle in the 1960s to get African American history into the School District of Philadelphia curriculum. Both are fantastic examples of students following their interests.
For those uninitiated into the wonder of National History Day (NHD), it is a nationwide competition that provides thousands of students with real history skills. Middle and high school students, as a group or as an individual, are presented with a theme; 2019’s was “Triumph and Tragedy.” They are tasked with presenting a paper, performance, documentary, exhibit, or website that fits within the theme and they then compete in a series of competitions that build up to the nation-wide contest. In Philly, our regional contest is NHD Philly and it has been running for over fourteen years.
NHD Philly uses a cooperative model to ensure student access to diverse collections and promote student success. In models like this and with educational programs like NHD, we, as archive and museum professionals, tend to hope that students use our collections, tell stories from our archives, and interview our staff. This is where NHD Philly diverges. The days leading up to the contest (and the many months of planning prior), it is all about the students. It is nearly impossible to walk around the National Constitution Center and the host locations (such as the National Museum of American Jewish History, WHYY, and Arch Street Meeting House) and not see the bigger picture that all participating organizations see. The competition isn’t about our collections: it’s about the students. Take it from someone who works for the archive that holds the Lewis and Clark journals—it isn’t about where the student found that primary resource: it is truly about how they used it in their project.
In a city whose students face innumerable challenges, we witness many more triumphs. The restorative energy brought to history professionals by seeing those 437 students engaged with history through this program is a triumph. The ability of fifty organizations and twenty schools to provide those students with that opportunity is a triumph. Sometimes we wait for the right theme. Sometimes we wait for the right opportunities to collaborate. As long as we never wait to provide students and educators with access to our professional skills and collections, waiting won’t get in the way.
You can see both of these winning projects while you’re in Philadelphia for #AASLH2019. Taryn’s exhibit project, “Black Studies Now! Philadelphia’s 1967 Student Walkouts,” and Harry’s paper, “Dealing with the Devil: The Triumph and Tragedy of IBM’s Business with the Third Reich” will both be on display at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Be sure to check them out while you are in town either during HSP’s regular daytime hours or for the evening event, “Out in the Gayborhood: LGBTQ History in Philly” on Wednesday, August 28. You can also read Harry’s paper online on the NHD Philly website.