Grad student creates exhibit at National Portrait Gallery


<p class="MsoNormal">Erica Cottam had never been to Washington, D.C., and hadn’t given much thought to the summer of 2009 when she signed up for a "Public History" short course at ASU in January 2009.</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">But that class turned out to be a door of opportunity for Cottam.</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">“For the short courses, the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies brings in practitioners,” she said. “Last year, they invited Martin Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery. At the end of the class, he offered me an internship if I wanted to come to Washington.”</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">Of course Cottam said yes, and she ended up spending nearly three months last summer curating a photographic exhibit called "Glimpse of the Past: A Neighborhood Evolves."</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">That exhibit now is on display at the National Portrait Gallery through Jan. 8, 2012.</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">“Glimpse of the Past” is a photographic exploration of the neighborhood surrounding the Patent Office Building, one of the oldest federal buildings in Washington, D.C. and now home to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">According to the NPG Web site, the exhibit features images from the 1850s to the present that show the rise, decline and revival of the area.</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">Cottam said the NPG had already been planning on doing “Glimpse,” and when she accepted the internship, she was assigned to put the exhibit together.</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">“It was fortuitous for them that I was going there and they had someone to do the exhibit,” Cottam said. “"And it was a great opportunity for me to get practical experience at such a great museum."</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">Cottam, a native of St. George, Utah, spent the first few weeks doing background work and getting herself oriented to the city.</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">“Then, I was going through old photo collections at the Washingtoniana Divison of the District of Columbia Public Library, and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., looking for images of the neighborhood over time.”</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">Cottam said she was amazed to learn how much history was contained in the three- to four-block radius of the Patent Office Building.</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">“We could have put together many exhibits," Cottam said. "It was a struggle, realizing how small the gallery space was and choosing which story to tell, and how much had to be left out.”</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">She wrote in the introduction to the show, “From its (Patent Office Building) steps, a view back through time reveals a neighborhood ambitiously growing up along muddy streets; a heyday of rattling trolleys and department stores with glowing holiday display windows; a tableau of smoke, broken glass, rioters and soldiers that left downtown abandoned to crime and drugs; and the human faces – from dedicated politicians to risk-taking developers, to pioneering preservationists – who have made downtown what it is today: the vibrant heart of Washington.”</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">She was thrilled to be able to spend so much time in Washington, D.C., which she said is “a perfect place for a public historian.”</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">“It was really educational for me. It was exciting to be able to go to the great museums in person. My favorite part was the outdoor monuments. You can see pictures, but it’s not the same as being there.”</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">So what exactly is the job of a public historian?</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">Cottam, a second-year doctoral student in the public history program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said there are “as many answers to that question as there are public historians.”</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">“My own short definition is that public historians practice history primarily outside of the academy, interpreting the past for audiences that reach beyond the classroom. People encounter the past in a multitude of ways every day –at historic sites and national parks, on television, at museums, online – and these are the realms of public historians.&nbsp;</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">“To name a few examples, public historians work as museum professionals and curators, government historians, private historical consultants, business historians, archivists, historic preservationists, cultural resource managers, expert witnesses, film and media producers and consultants, policy advisers, oral historians and local historians.”</p><separator></separator><p class="MsoNormal">To see a slide show of the exhibit, visit <a href="http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/glimpse/index.html">http://www.npg.si.edu…;