Temple Grad Takes History on the Road
by Sara Curnow Wilson
The Philadelphia Public History Truck, a creation of Erin Bernard (Journalism BA ’08, History MA ’15) has been selected by the National Council on Public History (NCPH) to receive their 2016 Outstanding Public History Project Award. The History Truck is a food truck-turned-mobile museum that focuses on Philadelphia and its neighborhoods.
“This award in particular is pretty wonderful,” explains Hilary Iris Lowe, director of Temple’s Center for Public History. “It is the highest award that any project—professional, museum, or institutional—can be awarded by the leading public history organization,” she says.
In addition to the exposure, the award comes with a $1,000 prize. The money will go toward the History Truck’s fourth project, in the Fairhill neighborhood. Bernard, along with artist José Ortiz-Pagán, is working with the neighborhood community to design and install six historical markers. The project will kick off a traditional exhibition cycle in the neighborhood.
While this year’s incarnation is different than previous editions of the History Truck, flexibility is what the History Truck is all about. Each exhibit takes a different neighborhood as its subject—so far, Bernard has worked in East Kensington, the area around Temple and Callowhill—and she works collaboratively with residents and local organizations, so each project develops uniquely.
I like to think of it as sharing a microphone.
Community members share oral histories and artifacts at the community dinners and block parties Bernard hosts. She listens to their stories and allows their experiences to shape the exhibits. She also invites them into the design process.
“I like to think of it as sharing a microphone,” Bernard says.
The process allows stories to emerge that might not appear in traditional historical accounts, she explains. “I’m finding people who love history and want to participate, but maybe haven’t had an opportunity in a long time, or maybe don’t feel like work is being done that reflects their experience.”
When the exhibit comes to an end, it is packed into the History Truck and taken around the city. Bernard’s wish is to foster connections not only within communities, but also between them.
Connection is key for Bernard, who has been able to keep the History Truck alive in part because of her skill for finding partnerships. In the Callowhill area, for instance, alliances with the Asian Arts Initiative and the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission have been instrumental in helping Bernard access the community.
The History Truck was also aided in its second year by a grant from the Barra Foundation, which it received in conjunction with the Center for Public History.
“This is an example of what the Center would like to do with more projects,” says Lowe.
The History Truck will celebrate the NCPH award and its third birthday with a “Keep On Truckin” benefit on Saturday, July 16 at the Rotunda (4014 Walnut Street).