For several years, history professor Duke Richey wanted to develop a class that explored the intersections between public history, Western American history, and environmental history. In short, he was interested in how the problems that environmental historians in the academy investigate were presented to the public in museums. How are the histories of hotly contested land use practices such as mining, logging, hunting and trapping, or even recreational tourism on federal lands explained beyond the pages of scholarly journals and books? What about the construction of dams and changes to fisheries? How do museums present the complexities associated with the history of urban booms, or suburban sprawl, and the rise of the train and the automobile? How about nuclear waste production and disposal, other forms of energy use, or the history of the environmental movement—how are these very complicated histories displayed visually on walls and in the open spaces of museums for children and adults alike? In exploring questions about the public presentation of environmental history, college history students, Richey felt, might also think about other important issues. Can historians or museum operators ever truly operate objectively? Who gets to tell us stories about our past? How do museum's deal with controversial topics while maintaining as much community support as possible? Finally, how do museums get people to walk through their doors in the first place? And what role can digital history and the Internet play in creating or supporting museum experiences? Ultimately, Richey had one question that touched collectively on the whole: if we think that stories about how humans change landscapes and how landscapes change humans are important, are public historians doing a good job telling those stories to a broad audience? If not, what can we do about it?
Pacific Lutheran University is ideally suited for exploring these types of questions with students. Not only is PLU located by Puget Sound, where an array of the region's best museums exist, but the Pacific Northwest is also the home to some of the most important environmental debates in American history.
With funding from a generous contribution by the Wiancko Charitable Foundation to PLU's interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Program, and with a Provost's Innovative Teaching Grant, Richey designed and taught a class titled Public History and Environmental Change in the Pacific Northwest. The course took place during January Term (or "J-Term"), 2008. During J-Term, PLU students take only one class, where they have the refreshing opportunity to study a topic deeply without the distractions of a typical busy semester.
During the course the students did what history students normally do, which is to say that they read a lot and wrote a lot (largely in the form of bi-weekly journal entries). The readings included Mike Wallace's Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays in American Memory, as well as a number of shorter pieces on the practice of public history. Students read Murray Morgan's classic local history, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound, before tackling recent works by leading environmental historians, including selections from Kathryn Morse's work on the Klondike Gold Rush and selections from David Louter's book on national parks in the state of Washington. In one memorable class, Louter and Heather Lee Miller, an historian with Historical Research Associates, a consulting firm, visited class and talked about the roles played by public historians who also happen to deal regularly with environmental history as a subject. The class also read, in its entirety, Joseph Taylor's prize-winning study Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis. They watched several documentary films. They also visited PLU's Special Collections and learned about the materials there from archivist Kerstin Ringdahl; they took a mini-course in web design with the university's Digital Media Developer, Nick Butler. Finally, but most importantly for understanding this website, the class visited six museums.
Richey's twenty-one students created this site. They ranged from first year students to graduating seniors and they represented sixteen majors. With design ideas and feedback from the entire class, one student, Chris Hunt, put the whole thing together into the visually appealing website that you see. In discussing some of the environmental issues that emerged in the class, and in discussing the museums themselves, the students have sought to create a resource here for anyone interested in seeing what each museum has to offer in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Our target audience is a middle school teacher in Washington, where seventh and eighth grade students take courses dealing with state history. This teacher may be considering a trip to a museum in order to investigate environmental histories in the Northwest. If you are one of these teachers (and even if you are not), we hope you find this website useful.