Friday, October 7, 2022

7 Questions with Laura Macaluso, Public Historian


Laura A. Macaluso researches and writes about monuments, museums, murals, and material culture. She has a PhD in the Humanities with a focus on Cultural & Historic Preservation. She works in development for the York County History Center in York, PA and tweets @monumentculture. You can find more of her work at

1.How and when did you get hooked on history?

Well, I'm an outlier here because my discipline is Art History, which I studied as an undergraduate and graduate student. But, I came to appreciate both sides of the name: that is, the art side and the history side. Much later, when I studied monuments (which are often equal parts art and history), I realized that public art and public history share a lot of the same ideas and practices, and now I try to keep doing a little bit of both. 

But, I want to pay homage to an early teacher here. Her name was Miss Shinko, and she taught at my Catholic school for only one year. But I know, from a blurry square photograph, that she took us to see the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Truthfully, I don't remember the trip, but the Temple of Dendur remains a favorite--especially now that the Met projects colored light on the stone surface, so that visitors can get a sense of how colorful the hieroglyphics would have been in the Ancient World. That is a big change from when I was a young student: museums now recognize that ancient statues, monuments, and buildings were full of color, not the bright white marble of Classical Greek statues or the bland sandstone of Egyptian temples. 

And, in terms of American history, well, let's just balance out visits to the Met with the real deal: made-for-TV miniseries such as George Washington with Barry Bostwick, North & South with Patrick Swayze, and later, Ken Burns's The Civil War, which was like religion for my history-loving husband, all played a part. As did trips with my parents to local historical sites in Connecticut like Mystic Seaport, Gillette's Castle, and Dinosaur State Park. 

2. How role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

The practice of history drives me (to distraction it feels sometimes!); because it feels so deeply embedded in the way I think and perform basic functions like reading and writing and conceptualizing everything around me. I see the good in this, but I also see the limitations. That comes with age. The practice of history has opened doors, so that I have been able to travel and be with people I never would have met in places like South Africa, New Zealand, England, and Italy. But, at the same time, I also know that history can also be narrow in the people it includes in its practice, so, sometimes it is a frustrating endeavour. I see glimpses of the world and want to apply a historian's lens to it all, but there isn't enough time, ever. 

3. How does history play a part in your professional life/career?

Yes, history does play a part in my "regular" job in a history museum, and there is a specific role to play there in Advancement, where I put project management skills to use. But, it is much more in terms of the research, writing, and publishing I work at, sometimes for money, sometimes not, which is a current and problematic discussion within many communities, from higher education to museums to not-for-profits. In 2022, the practice of history enabled me to participate in a webinar hosted by Duke University, publish a book, lecture for the Smithsonian Associates, attend a fully supported study week in Chicago, and present at the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) conference in Buffalo. This is a typical year, and it is a good reminder, as I write this for you, that this is a position of privilege. 

4. Why is studying/knowing history important?

Is there any way to unpack what happened on January 6, 2021 without the assistance of history? It was shocking and, as yet, has not had enough historical work done around that event to begin to understand its causes, repercussions and resonances throughout not only the country, but the world. I don't know why I am honing in on this right now, when there are hundreds if not thousands of topics worthy of discussion and learning. But, I guess that's the point: I am interested in evolving discussions and continual learning. History is one tool with which to engage in that way of living. 

5. What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?

Usually I say that whatever I am working on is my current favorite thing, and that is because it is so fresh. Recently I finished a short biography of the American artist Jeff Koons, which will appear on the Literary and Cultural Heritage Maps of PA, hosted by the Pennsylvania Center for the Book. Koons, whether you love his artwork or hate it, is the most successful American artist after Andy Warhol. And, the practice of art/history helped me think about this: Pennsylvania, a heavily rural state, produced the two most important American artists of the last sixty years, at opposite ends of the state. One artist is considered an icon of "Pop" and the other, an icon of "Neo-Pop."  What are their legacies for Pennsylvania?

I came to learn and work in Pennsylvania without knowing anything at all about it, but I've already got project ideas to last for the next few years. This is my favorite aspect of history: the histories needing to be written are just sitting there, waiting for someone with the ability to look and to question to get at it. 

6. What drew you to the field of public history?

The opportunity to work on artifacts/objects outside of the general purview of traditional historians and art historians drew me, first, to public art, and then to public history. There is room to breathe in these spaces. Boundaries can be crossed more easily. Materials are closer at hand. 

7. Why is the study of public history, and public history itself important?

Practicing public history is something anyone can do and everyone should do! Today I went to the doctor, and he reminded me why exercise is important. It is work, but, if you find something you like, it is also a joy. Doing public art/history is work, but it can also be a joy. 

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