Transcript – Episode 72

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture, the arts, humanities, and sciences, to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Catherine Allgor: People do love history. I do have to tell you that they did a survey, and they said, “What is the number one word when you hear history?” And the number one word that people associated with it was ‘boring’. But, when you’re asked about the past, people are interested in the past.

Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Catherine Allgor. She is the President of Mass Historical Society, relatively new to the position. Welcome to our program.

Catherine Allgor: I’m thrilled to be here, thank you.

Anita Walker: Now, I have to start with you, because you have a very interesting, if not unusual, path to this position. You didn’t– you didn’t– originally say, “I’m going to be an Historian.”

Catherine Allgor: Oh, no! Not at all. Actually, originally as a child I wanted to either be Cat Woman or a nun. And that bothered me because really it’s evil versus good. But I realized what I was attracted to were costumes. So I actually– I started out my career as an actor.

Anita Walker: An actor, In New York!?

Catherine Allgor: In New York and New Jersey I did– I did mostly theater. But you know what it was? I look back at it now, it’s like, I came from a very sort of modest background, blue collar, and college was probably not going to be an option for me. So, what do you do when you’re chatty and smart and a girl? And the answer is you– you go into the arts. And so that was my entry way really into the world of ideas that a lot of young people would encounter in college.

Anita Walker: So then what happened? Because now you’re a history..

Catherine Allgor: <laughs> I know, I’m– well, you know– I found myself as an actor– well, I think I’m very funny, but I didn’t do comedy. I did a lot of heroic and historic roles, and the one that changed my life was Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst. And in a very unusual move, the company that I worked for, Stage One Productions, <Anita coughs> gave me a thousand dollars, which in the 80’s was a lot of money. And, sent me to Amherst, Amherst, Massachusetts, to live and to study Emily. And that was really my first, sort of, I didn’t know it at the time, act as a historian. So when I was about thirty, I– I really wanted an education. I didn’t even know what to study, but I– I just felt this kind of intellectual hunger. But I didn’t know about colleges, except Emily Dickenson had gone to Mount Holyoke. So I went to Mount Holyoke College and I just said, “Can I come to school there?” <laughs> And they said yes. Which is, lesson one is sometimes you just have to ask. As it turned out, Mount Holyoke, like a lot of women’s colleges acknowledges that women don’t often go to college “on time”, and so they have programs for non-traditional students. So, I was very lucky, in 1991 I showed up at South Hadley and they were so generous, and I graduated summa cum laude in history and went right from there to Yale and got my Masters and Ph.D. And then I began a very standard academic career.

Anita Walker: So let’s fast forward because now you’re in Boston.

Catherine Allgor: Mmhmm. Yes!

Anita Walker: And now you are the President of Mass Historical Society, and something tells me you don’t spend all of your time in the library. That you have ambitions around an historical organization that is maybe a combination of academic and public.

Catherine Allgor: Absolutely. I would say I spend very little time in the <laughing> library, as a matter of fact. So look, we live in a beautiful building on Boylston Street. We’re right at the edge of the Fenway. And we’ve been in the building since 1899. Now we’ve actually been in business since 1791. We are the oldest historical society I think in our hemisphere, but certainly in the United States. But, Boylston Street, 1899 and for a hundred years Mass Historical Society was there. And you could come, we’ve always been free and open to the public, but you had to find us, and then you also had to figure out why you’d want to come. So, not a lot of people came. And then about twelve or thirteen years ago, my wonderful predecessor Dennis Fiori decided his strategy was, “Let’s do all kinds of interesting, wonderful, delicious things here so you’ll come.” And that’s when we started doing public programs. So we do two or three programs a week, author talks, exhibits, panel discussions, about all kinds of historical themes and topics. And there’s always refreshments, it’s wonderful. And then Dennis also really launched our exhibition program, so anytime you come there’ll be something to see. So we now have developed a really nice audience of people who come to us. But, you know, I’m the President now, what, what am I doing? And the answer is: getting out. And my staff has given me the all clear sign, we want to get out! Whatever that means. Whether it’s installing a wee library right on our little front lawn, which we’re doing. Digitizing our stuff to get it out into the world, working with community partners who serve underserved children, working with teachers and students in all kinds of interesting ways, however you interpret it, we are getting out.

Anita Walker: So, let me ask you this: do you think history has a bum rap? Do you think people sort of knee jerk, “Ugh, history, history is so boring. I took history in high school, I slept through the whole class.” <Catherine laughs> You seem so excited about it.

Catherine Allgor: Oh, my gosh, I– well, I think you’re excited about it too because it’s true, when I go to cocktail parties, when I was a professor and I, people would say, “What do you do?” And I would say I was a history professor and they would totally get that shame-faced look and they would just sort of sheepishly admit that they didn’t like history in high school and college. But then inevitably they said, “But I love it now!” And they would talk about biographies and they would talk about, you know, what they were watching on television, so people do love history. I do have to tell you that they did a survey, and they said, “What is the number one word when you hear history?” And the number one word that people associated with it was ‘boring’. But, when you’re asked about the past, people are interested in the past. Right? And they don’t know it’s the same thing.

Anita Walker: What about today in school? Do you think history is still boring to kids today in school?

Catherine Allgor: No, there’s been a real shift. So, what historians really do, in the morning after we punch in and grab a cup of coffee, is we engage with pieces of the past, primary sources we call them. They could be on paper, but they could also be a lava lamp, a painting, something. We engage with them, and we create arguments and insights about the past based on evidence. That’s– that’s the job. And for a long time we didn’t ask children to do that. You may remember if you were bored by history, we were asked to memorize names and dates. Well now because of things like the Common Core and the kind of educational leadership that the State of Massachusetts has provided to the rest of the country, we now ask students to look at the primary sources and ask questions of them, and create arguments or theses using evidence. They develop critical thinking skills, the ability to tell, let us say, truth from fiction! <laughs> Or to look at evidence and be able to evaluate it. To think logically. So when children study history, we now know, they learn about the past. They learn about how our government got set up, or they learn about something happening in the past that’s relevant to them, but they also develop these skills, and because of that it’s never boring because it’s always about human beings.

Anita Walker: And it’s stories, people love stories!

Catherine Allgor: It’s stories! Yes! It’s stories about human beings. Nothing boring about that.

Anita Walker: So now when you’re at the cocktail party and people say, “What do you do?” Do you say, “Well, I just tell stories about human beings!” <laughs>

Catherine Allgor: No, they–  I– I say– now I say, “I’m the President of the Massachusetts Historical Society.” And everybody lights up and says, “Oh, congratulations!” And I say, “I’m going to take that congratulations, ‘cause it’s a great job and I love it and I’m so happy to have it.”

Anita Walker: Well, we are so happy that you are here with your enthusiasm, Catherine Allgor, President of Mass Historical Society, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.

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