Maisie O’Malley is a Master’s candidate in Loyola University Chicago’s Public History program. Public historians study and practice the presentation of historical knowledge to general audiences. In this post, she reflects on her time spent as a summer intern at SEHS:
It’s Treh-mont, not Tree-mont. I still catch myself mispronouncing this iconic street’s name even after spending the summer living and working in the South End. I moved to Boston from Chicago in late May with no preconceptions about the South End. I walked around the neighborhood, immediately fell in love with the row houses, and started my internship at the South End Historical Society expecting to put my year’s-worth of graduate study to use being a Public Historian. Here are some of the lessons I learned:
Historical societies are only as good as their staff. A non-profit historical society faces innumerable challenges, and staff members must be both able historians and creative administrators. Luckily, Hope and Stacen are talented directors. Their day-to-day schedules can seem like administrative work—compile the year-end financial report, design a mailing for the House Tour, get the bathroom painted. When they finally get to do fun history-related projects, like the House Tour or Dirty Old Boston, their work demonstrates an unparalleled passion for the South End. They go about their jobs with Public History best practice in mind, which ensures that the society remains a credible historical institution. The Society would lack integrity without skillful historians like Hope and Stacen.
The Historical Society also benefits from an active Board and members. When members volunteer to work on a project, organize an event, or simply stuff envelopes for an afternoon, they are investing much more than their time—they invest value into the Society. Having a strong membership base also provides the Society with a pool of diversely talented people, and when that group is passionate about their neighborhood’s history, everyone benefits. Member participation is essential to a successful historical society, and SEHS can always rely on a dynamic core of members.
Lastly, I now understand the important relationship between a community and its history. In graduate school, we often discuss who has agency in the production of history. Who “does” history? Who “owns” it? In my opinion, history truly belongs to the public, and should be produced as such. An institution like the South End Historical Society becomes a facilitator for that history by being a part of the community. The community members who participate with SEHS become their own kind of public historians. It’s something that I don’t believe I could have understood just through class discussion; I had to see it first-hand.
I lived and worked in the South End for only one summer, but the neighborhood and community made an impression on my perceptions of the public history field. The lessons I learned from the South End will stay with me for a long time, and I’m excited to get back to Chicago to share my experiences. I want to thank Hope and Stacen for teaching me so much—about the South End, about running a historical society, and for introducing me to Render. I would also like to thank the SEHS members who, through their passion for the neighborhood, demonstrated that history is important to people—which also made me feel more secure about employment after grad school. Thank you for a wonderful summer!